Younger kids and competition


Melissa Martin, Ph.D.



This column offers a snapshot of information on a controversial topic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, participation in organized sports should not begin until age 6 years. Do you agree or disagree? Competitive games for children ages 4 and under continues to be discussed by parents, pediatricians, coaches, educators, and professional helpers.

Child experts advocate for parents to pay attention to developmental ages of children in regard to competition. Children age 3 – 4 years are not developmentally ready for games with competition whereas children age 5 – 6 years are becoming immersed in the school culture and exposed to winning and losing games in the classroom, on the playground, in gym class, and during after school activities.

Competing and comparing shows up first in the home between siblings. Older children volley for parental attention when a newborn sibling or stepsibling comes along. Jealousy and resentment may follow. The youngsters make a contest out of daily activities like who can be the first to eat, first to brush teeth, first to jump into the car seat, and the list goes on and on. Of course, some competition among siblings is natural, however, intense competition can be seen as rivalry and moves on a continuum from mild to moderate to severe. Children of the same sex and similar age are more likely to experience sibling rivalry and compare and compete. Parents with a heads up can prevent playing games from being the battlefield of conflict, jealousy, resentment, and anger. However, emotions are part of the hardware that comes with being a human being and parents can help children accept, understand, process, and manage intense feelings around competition with sisters and brothers. Albeit, younger children do learn about competition from watching sports on television or attending games played by older siblings. And by observing siblings and adults play video games.

Developmentally appropriate games for children provide fun learning experiences throughout childhood. Free play and organized play are both valuable. Common functions of play are to facilitate physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and moral development. Games promote relational interactions, the learning of social and emotional skills, decision-making, and the practicing of rules. Competence learned through mastering techniques by participating in games build confidence in kids.

Organized games and sports do teach skills, but it’s up to the adults to provide healthy learning experiences in regard to winning or losing. However, the playing of games is often accompanied by competition. And to many children competition signifies either winning or losing and translates into the language of winners or losers. Alas, the same goes for many adults. When I watch the Olympic Games, I often wonder about the athlete in fourth place. First, second, and third receive medals, applause, and praise. But, how does the person in fourth place respond to losing?

Ponder on the following questions for children ages 4 and under: Does the world need pediatric competition? Does pediatric competition need to look different from older children competition? Do growing brains and bodies of younger children need competition? Are children becoming more competition-aware at a younger age and if so, why?

Competition shows up in the home, at daycare, preschool, and kindergarten. Adults can begin to role model and teach kids at an early age to enjoy winning and tolerate losing and how to manage intense feelings connected to winning or losing.

Think about the following questions: How do daycare centers, preschools, and kindergarten staff respond to competition? How much competition challenges and motivates and how much produces apathy and giving up? How will you build resiliency and bounce back skills into your child when he or she loses?

For example, in the game of Tee-ball for children in kindergarten the score is not kept and winning and losing teams are not identified. The focus is on safety, having fun, playing, and learning rules, social interactions, emotions management, and building skills for batting, catching, running the bases, and throwing. According to my communication with coaches, most of the players (kids) know what team won and what team lost, even if the parents believe the kids are not keeping score.

Alfie Kohn wrote, “Competition is destructive to children’s self-esteem, it interferes with learning, sabotages relationships, and isn’t necessary to have a good time.” Kohn, the author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, found the following through his seminal research: The losing part of competition affects a child’s self-esteem. A review of 65 studies spanning 60 years found that children learn better with teamwork vs. individual competing. And children experience feelings of hostility when competing.

A book with an opposing view, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman also reviewed research studies. They explored the physiological, psychological, and historical angles of competing and concluded that competition is beneficial for children.

In my opinion, competition is not the problem—the problem is what we do with it and whether we respect it, change it, balance it, romance it or worship it. Why? Because competition is a reality on our planet and its not going away. However, others may see competition as the problem. Either way you see it, the home is the buffer zone and parents are the buffers.

Be a proactive parent and prepare your younger children because they will have winning and losing experiences. The goal is for the new learning experiences at home to transfer to daycare, preschool, and kindergarten as your child begins to manage thoughts, emotions, and behaviors connected to competition and losing and winning.

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Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.