Keeping score: teaching kids a healthy sense of competition

What is happier than a child’s beaming smile following a big win? And what is sadder than tears of defeat or disappointment after a loss? Yet both are part of life.

We’ve all heard the debates over whether the “everybody gets a trophy” approach to participation encourages or misguides kids. It began as an effort to emphasize effort and build and reinforce self-esteem, which is having respect for one’s worth and abilities. KidsHealth from Nemours, in an article titled, “Developing Your Child’s Self-Esteem,” notes that “Self-esteem also can be defined as feeling capable while also feeling loved.”

It further suggests that “Patterns of self-esteem start very early in life. The concept of success following effort and persistence starts early,” adding that “As kids try, fail, try again, fail again, and then finally succeed, they develop ideas about their own capabilities. At the same time, they're creating a self-concept based on interactions with other people.”

Like so many things, balance and perspective are essential. While deep and lasting self-esteem draws a connection between effort and reward, it’s also important for kids to learn that their worth is inherent, not about their success or non-success in one area, and that their abilities differ from those around them. As KidsHealth observes, “This is why parental involvement is key to helping kids form accurate, healthy self-perceptions.

Some parents even express, if not gladness, a definite okay-ness when their high-achieving kids “suffer” their first big setback because it builds resilience for inevitable future letdowns when someone else wins or gets “the prize,” whatever that may be, whether a coveted award or first chair in the clarinet section.

Games of all kinds are often where clear and direct competition begins.

In an article titled “Should You Let Your Kid Win at Games?” on his blog Fatherly, Michael Howard posed that question to clinical psychologist “Dr. Joe” Taravella, supervisor of Pediatric Psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center's Rusk Rehabilitation. Howard characterizes the short answer as “sometimes.” However, Taravella elaborates on the concept of developing sportsmanship in phases. For example, he suggests that toddlers “should learn to play well with others before learning to play against others.”

Competitiveness, however, picks up around preschool, and role-modeling both winning and losing with grace becomes important. Howard sums this up by saying, “Your kid should beat you sometimes, so they can witness Dad lose while still genuinely enjoying the game. You should beat your kid sometimes so they can see what a ‘good game’ handshake looks like when it's not followed by the robot dance.”

Remind kids, says Howard, that games are meant to be fun, and that “everyone is good at something.” Taravella notes,"’Normalize it for them to see that each one of us is unique and different and special, and we bring our own talents."

In “Teaching Healthy Competition,” Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., who heads the Family Achievement Clinic, Educational Assessment Service, Inc., in Watertown, WI, writes,“Most children would like to be best at something, whether it be favorite in the family, best at academics, sports, music, art, or most beautiful or popular.”

She notes that in her research on the childhoods of successful women, “winning in competition was the most frequently mentioned positive experience. Furthermore, many women described defining moments where they learned from their losing experiences.” Rimm says, “Winning can be exhilarating and motivating for all children, and all children can learn from losing experiences.”

For games that build important academic skills as they also develop healthy competetiveness, check out Go Fish Alphabet Game Cards, Old Maid Numbers Game Cards, Math War Addition and Subtraction, Math War Multiplication. And what better time than the start of baseball season, to share The Last Game with early readers? A Level 3 offering from the Start to Read! series, it builds suspense and action, as a tie-breaking baseball game unfolds, and boys and girls on the two teams make their best plays.

Competition is a reality of our world. Successfully navigating it takes guided practice.