My mom was a tiger mom. She demanded excellence and if any of my friends were better at a sport or skill than I was, she pushed me to do better. That meant hours dedicated to practicing piano, hours perfecting dance routines, and hours studying to get grades that she could be proud of. Not only did this add more stress on me as a kid, but it also placed tension on my friendships because it always became some sort of unnecessary competition.
For Violet Beauregarde, her story was never really about gum chewing. The spirit of competition and need to be the best or the first runs deep with her. The 2005 movie does a more obvious job of showing this caricature.
In the story, Violet is an avid gum-chewer. She set the world record for chewing the same piece of gum for three months straight. While in the Inventing Room, Violet grabs the prototype of Wonka’s 3-Course-Meal Gum and chews it, despite the warnings from Mr. Wonka that it’s not ready for consumption. Sadly, she tuns into the iconic child blueberry and is hauled off to be juiced.
Competition isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it can have consequences depending on how it’s handled.
How It Starts
The competitive spirit can start showing itself around 5-6 years of age. As kids gain more awareness of the “rules of the game” and what they are capable of, they begin to compare themselves to others. They also start to realize where they excel and where they don’t. If they thought they were a fast runner, they now have to prove it among their peers.
Winning and success give a large hit of dopamine (the feel-good hormone), motivating our kids to do it again and work harder to achieve that goal. Although some kids are internally driven to be the best, grownups can unintentionally turn friendly competition toxic.
Winning Isn’t Everything, or Is It?
Healthy competition can bolster important skills like resilience, determination, accountability, adaptability, self-control, emotional regulation, social skills, and empathy. When we prep kids to accept failure and losses, we teach them to have a growth mindset: the perspective that change is possible with time and effort. Children with this attitude are more likely to view competition as part of the process to improve their skills, rather than an evaluation of if they are good enough. They see losing as a learning opportunity, not the end of the world.
However, if we place a heavy fixation on winning without appreciating the process, our kids will feel disheartened if they lose. This can foster a fixed mindset, believing that no matter what they do or how hard they try, they will never be better. Kids with this mentality may feel the need to constantly prove themselves, evaluating their efforts in an all-or-nothing way. For me growing up, if I wasn’t the best at something, my confidence waned. If my mother couldn’t boast about my accomplishments, then I disappointed her. It felt like my successes were a currency for her affection. In my mind, no accolades = no love.
As parents, we can overdo it; pushing our kids to strive for excellence. A 2015 study found that 49% of students surveyed felt a great deal of daily stress while 31% reported feeling somewhat stressed. Remember that stress levels can directly affect a child’s development and academic performance. That could lead to child burnout or create the foundations for an over-competitive child.
At some point, we’ve all witnessed when someone is too competitive. They obnoxiously run around following a victory, claiming they’re the best and taunting the losing team. They may also have a total temper tantrum if they lose, blaming others or random factors that had nothing to do with the game.
This attitude can negatively affect making and maintaining friends. Kids who are overly competitive may not view peers as potential friends, but as obstacles or opponents. Rather than build connections and learn to develop their own support system, their focus is on winning. Unhealthy competition within social circles (hello, frenemies) can result in negative peer interactions, like bullying.
Look for these red flags if you think the competition is getting the best of your kid:
- Being a sore loser (or even a sore winner)
- Negative self-talk
- Blaming others for the loss, or claiming that the opposition cheated
- Unnecessary aggression or intimidation, on or off the field
You Win Some, You Lose Some
Competition can be a part of life even if you’re not playing a sport. So, it’s important to help our kids learn to handle both wins and losses as they as grow. Here’s some ways to build a healthy outlook on it:
- Practice winning/losing appropriately with games that involve skill (like Connect 4 or Memory) as well as luck (Hungry, Hungry Hippos or Candyland) to help them accept the result with self-control.
- Replace your child’s statements like, “I have to win this game. Everyone’s counting on me,” to affirmations like, “I am enough. As long as I do my best, that’s all that matters.”
- Teach your child that they are only in competition with their personal best. Rather than focus on if they placed first or last, put emphasis on whether they improved on their previous time or if they felt good about their performance.
- Practice what you preach. If you tell your child, “It’s only a game,” then that’s what it is. Just a game. No need to overly critique from the sidelines or yell at the refs when the call is not in your child’s favor. Yes, this is hard to do and I’m guilty of it as well. Ultra-competitiveness is very much a learned trait, and kids are taking their cues from you most of all.
- Applaud your child’s effort and hard work, even if the outcome didn’t go as planned. Help them acknowledge and congratulate their peer’s successes as well.
- Allow your kid to experience failure. Like trial-and-error, losing permits learning. It teaches them that they can recover and figure out another way to accomplish their goal.
- Don’t allow your child to quit just because the task becomes harder. There’s a difference between wanting to quit because it’s not enjoyable and quitting because it’s no longer easy. Once they conquer that obstacle, they may want to continue working on their skills and have a more optimistic mindset about the practice.
- On that same note, if your kid genuinely wants to quit, let them. They may only be engaging in an activity because of you or some other outside pressure. This comes back to just wanting your kid to be happy, and not making them do an activity to satisfy someone else.
- Remind your kid that they are not defined by their successes or failures, but how they handle the outcome. Ensure they know that your love is unconditional and not tied to their achievements.
We get it, especially coming off of a generation where parents have their kids doing so many extracurriculars. But everyone getting a participation ribbon at this age (5-8) is totally okay. They are still at the age where sports and activities are supposed to be about skill-building and having fun.
Violet Beauregarde Character Analysis in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory | LitCharts
Pros and Cons of Competition Among Kids and Teens (verywellfamily.com)
Leonard, N. R., Gwadz, M. V., Ritchie, A., Linick, J. L., Cleland, C. M., Elliott, L., & Grethel, M. (2015). A multi-method exploratory study of stress, coping, and substance use among high school youth in private schools. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1028.
Teaching Control to Your Overly Competitive Child | HealthyPlaceWhy Kids are Competitive (parents.com)