Embracing My Son's Competitive Streak

by Wendy Wisner
competitive kid
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Recently, I was playing Candyland with my 3-year-old. He had almost made it to King Kandy’s castle and was excited to win. And then, as often happens in the scintillating game of Candyland, he was called backwards to Grandma Nutt’s house. He was visibly upset, his little brow furrowing. He told me he wasn’t going to go to Grandma’s Nutt’s. He was going to stay right where he was!

I told him if he did that, then we weren’t really playing by the rules. I explained that either of us could get pulled back to an earlier location, and we just had to play until someone won. I also told him that it didn’t matter who got to King Kandy’s castle first, and we could play again later.

I was set for him to disagree vehemently, or throw a fit. Miraculously, he did neither. He sulked for a second, but went to Grandma Nutt’s, and continued playing the game.

I was shocked that this moment of defeat had blown over so easily. I immediately had flashbacks of playing this same game with my older son when he was 3. Something similar had happened (being called backwards is pretty much the only challenge of the game). But instead of listening to reason or deciding to suck it up and deal, my first son threw the Candyland board and all its pieces clear across the room.

Yep. His competitive streak shone through even at the ripe age of 3.

It only got worse from there. Unless he was winning, board games almost always ended with him coming up with some far-fetched argument why he should win, why the rules made no sense, or accusations that someone had cheated.

He embarrassed me a few times by pulling these same tricks with his grandparents, or even with his friends. To say he was a sore loser was an understatement. Often, I would just not play any competitive games with him. Or I would only do so on the condition that he play by the rules and accept it if he lost.

Things got a little better with games over the years — and he thankfully didn’t pull anything like that at school. But he continued to be a child who is pretty obsessed with perfection, with excelling, and being “the best.”

Luckily for him, this is paired with a high intelligence. In fact, he has been tested as gifted, and I have since learned that gifted children often exhibit unreasonable levels of competitiveness and perfectionism.

Of course, none of that makes it less maddening, especially when you are dealing with a 5-year-old who ends up with steam coming out of his ears every time he plays Go Fish.

But something really cool has happened as he’s gotten older — somehow he has managed to harness his competitive streak for good.

My son is 9 now. He’s still the hothead he always was, but he is more self-aware and makes more of an effort not to blow his fuse. When it comes to games and other competitive situations, I see his disappointment register, but he can manage it much better. He definitely prefers to win, but he knows not to be a sore loser.

Even more than that, I see that his competitiveness has turned into a true drive to succeed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If he gets a less-than-perfect grade on a math test, he’s the one who aims to study harder for the next one. There have been times when he’s been too tired to do his homework, so I tell him he can skip it that night. But then I’ll see him wake up early the next morning without my asking, and finish up his homework then.

Last year, the whole third grade got recorders. (Yes, I was shopping for earplugs within hours after he brought his home.) My son decided he wanted to learn how to play every song in the music book perfectly before anyone else did. So he practiced, and practiced, and zoomed through the lessons like no one’s business, blowing his music teacher away.

Pretty amazing, if I do say so myself.

But as much I take pride in his intense need excel and succeed, I do still worry. Life is not always fair — not at all. There will be times when he stumbles or fails, even at the things he’s good at. And he needs to learn how to deal with those failures.

I try my best to give him a safe space for that — to air out his grievances, frustrations, and fears. I give him lots of pep talks and guidance about navigating through life with character traits such as the ones he has. I point out how amazing he is, but I don’t shy away from helping him deal with his flaws.

Either way, he’s certainly come a long way from the 3-year old who threw Candy Land across the room. And I am proud every day of the bright, energetic, and determined young man he’s becoming.

My advice to anyone out there who has a fiery, competitive little tyke? Wait. Breathe. Grit your teeth. It gets better. One day you’re going to see that your kid is fierce in the best possible way, totally self-directed, and was just waiting their turn to take the world by storm.