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Teaching Kids about Healthy Competitive Spirit

Introduction to Competition

Competition.  Some people shy away from it; others thrive on it.  Some people are “good sports” (winning and losing graciously) while others are “poor sports” (when winning, lording over the vanquished, and when losing, becoming angered or sullen).  Competition is the driver of many human interactions, both professional and personal . . . some that we may not even identify as competitive.  How do we teach our kids about a healthy competitive spirit to set the stage for successful adult interactions and relationships?  First, let’s review some of the various ways that competition can manifest in our lives.

Professional Competition
Job interviews are competitive (we compete with other candidates to land the job).  Wage/salary negotiations for your job are competitive (we compete with our employer over who can make the best deal).  Promotions are competitive (we compete with other employees for the elevated position). 

Personal Competition

Dating is competitive (we compete with other potential suitors to establish or maintain relationship).  Auctions are competitive (we compete with other potential buyers for ownership of the merchandise).  And certainly sports are competitive.     

Summary Thus Far

Competition forms the basis of many professional and personal interactions.  Since interpersonal interactions are how we create and maintain our professional and personal relationships with others, competition plays an important role in our relationships with those around us.

Comfortable Competition

In order for our kids to have successful adult interactions such as those listed above, we must teach our kids to be comfortable with healthy competition.  Shying away from competition will only cause your kids to come out with the short end of the stick when competitive situations arise, which they inevitably will.

Gracious Competition

We must also teach our kids to be “good sports”.  It is not enough merely to be comfortable with competition: we must handle competition graciously as well.  When we win, do we lord our “superiority” over those we vanquish?  Or do we thank our competitors for the competition and praise them for being worthy opponents?  When we lose, do we become angered or sullen?  Or do we accept loss with grace and accept it as a learning experience which can help us become more successful on our next effort.  We know that competition plays an important role in our relationships with those around us:  gracious competition, then, fosters successful adult relationships whereas ungracious competition harms relationships.


How are parents to teach kids about healthy competitive spirit?  The answer is to lead by example.  When we compete comfortably and graciously, our kids learn from what they observe us doing.  Additionally, we can (and should) speak with our kids about what we do and why we do it.  As our kids encounter their own competitive situations, we should coach them through the situations at first . . . help them view the competition in a healthy way.  As our kids become more experienced with competition, we need to provide them with feedback by praising them for situations well handled and redirecting them for situations that were not. 

Losses and Enthusiasm during Early Learning

Many parents debate whether to let their kids win when the kids are in the early learning stages of any competitive task.  This subject has been debated since time immemorial.  In this author’s opinion, initial modest (yet false) victories by a learner can encourage the learner’s interest in the task that has generated the competition.  However, for other learners, honest defeats may be more motivating, as they strive to achieve and do better next time.  It depends on the kids’ personalities and what motivates them.  One thing is certain, however, once the beginner has begun to grapple with the competitive task, wise parents generally let their kids win or lose as they merit, and the parents provide counsel and feedback for future success.  The word “generally” is used in the prior sentence for the following reason.  If a learner is becoming discouraged sufficient to walk away from the competition, parents may consider allowing one more modest (yet false) victory.  Again, the parents need to assess their kids and what motivates them.      


The way our kids handle competition will determine how well they establish and maintain professional and personal relationships; how successfully they interview, negotiate, and rise in the ranks professionally; and how successfully they achieve the personal relationships and accomplishments that they would like.   Through a variety of techniques, primarily leading by example, coaching, and providing feedback, we as parents, are responsible for inspiring a healthy competitive spirit in our kids and helping our kids become healthy, successful adults.

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