I’m a Mum of three boys, aged nine, four and 20 months. Our eldest doesn’t have a competitive bone in his body. He’s never been into team sports, or competition of any sort. He’s a cracking swimmer, and enters galas with his squad, but he’s simply not bothered about racing against others, and is happy to plod along, finishing wherever he ends up. But give him a book and he’ll devour it in an hour. For Christmas he got 25 new books, and had read them all by the time he went back to school after the holidays.
And that’s all we knew, until his younger brother came along.
The difference between the eldest and our middle one couldn’t be more marked. Maybe it’s because he’s a second child, and is always developmentally behind his brother, due to the five year age gap, but he’s ultra competitive. If it is sports-related, then he wants to win. He runs and runs at top speed, sweating and panting due to sheer physical exertion, always has a ball at his feet, and invites much older kids to try and tackle the ball from him. He has a massive grin on his face when he’s playing, but berates himself if he loses the ball. He powers his way through swimming lessons, challenging himself constantly, always wanting to progress and win. He’s 2 years younger than the other kids in his swimming class, but more than holds his own. He thrives on competition.
We’ve always just accepted them for the way they are, never trying to change their personalities, encouraging them to achieve on their own terms. We are totally non-pushy parents; we just aren’t like that, and equally don’t have the time to devote to pushing our kids to do stuff they don’t want to do. I’ve never really thought that much about it all, and what it means to have a competitive kid.
But this morning, a few comments from other parents at my four year old’s football class made me stop and think. The kids in his class are four, five and six, so he’s one of the youngest in there, but he’s one of the best players. And that’s not me bragging, it’s just clear to see. He tries his absolute best, never shies away from trying to tackle another child and always tries to score. He’s in his element with a ball at his feet. It’s his happy place and he loves it.
One of the games they played that morning involved the kids dribbling their ball around a square, with one kid trying to tackle the ball from them. My son was the tackler, and as the game progressed, several kids ran to their parents crying when they lost their ball. One parent commented in a very loud voice, directed to us, “he feels like he is always the loser. Maybe he should be allowed to win”. In another game the coach whispered to my four year old, “let’s let the other boy score shall we”, and I could see the confusion on my son’s face. What, he wasn’t supposed to try his best? Why? He thought that was what he was supposed to do.
What message is this sending to my son, and other sporty and competitive kids? That working hard and trying your absolute best isn’t to be praised. That they should stop trying and working so hard because by showing their skills they are upsetting other kids. That winners are somehow losers after all?
Now don’t get me wrong, we never encourage him to show off and don’t want him to get an inflated ego. It’s taken a while for us to convince him that he doesn’t actually play for Barcelona. Not helped by the fact that his nickname at school is ‘Magical Milo Messi’. We stress the importance of listening to his coach, shaking hands with the other kids at the end of class, and cheering his teammates on. We talk about how individual players work in a team, and how you all have to work together to achieve something. And he gets it. But he just wants to score and win and be the best he can be.
And we don’t want to dampen his enthusiasm by suggesting to him that his feelings are less important than another child’s. Equal to, undoubtedly, but no less important. So, his desire to win is as important as another child’s desire not to lose.
So, parents, if your child is a sporty and competitive one, brilliant, go for it! Encourage that child to achieve great things, to train, to work hard, to succeed and win. Talk about Olympians, World Cup winners, the Usain Bolts and Messis of this World. Dream with them of lifting the FA Cup, of winning the London Marathon and scoring a test century.
And if your child isn’t competitive, that’s great too. Being part of a team is a joy in itself, it’s about belonging and a sense of identity. The taking part is all that matters, at the end of the day. Maybe your child’s talents lie elsewhere, like my nine year old’s do. Perhaps they are a voracious reader, a talented artist, or a caring friend. Praise their achievements and nurture their talents in whatever field they lie.
But equally, please don’t bring down, diminish and seek to put out the light of another child by suggesting that they try less and aim lower. Praise each and every child for what they achieve, and talk to your child about how people have different talents, and that that’s a great thing. In the same way that my four year old marvels at how beautifully a child in his class can draw, or that another friend has collected some really cool rocks at the beach to share with his classmates, or that his older brother’s friend is a whizz at making daft YouTube clips, shouldn’t his desire to run and score goals be celebrated and encouraged? I say yes!
I chatted to a friend about this blog post, and in turn she spoke to her husband, who himself was a competitive and sporty kid. He sent me his favourite quote, which encapsulates my whole argument very nicely:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be ?” – brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” Marianne Wilson
For a four year old to be made to feel that trying hard and winning is somehow wrong, well, that’s just not right. Magical Milo Messi, we are right behind you son, you rock.
Alison is a Sheffield based mum of 3 boys, who blogs as dippyeggplease about food, nutrition and general mum stuff. She can usually be found debating the merits of various superheroes with her boys, seeking solace in a jar of peanut butter, or on the school run!