I was recently having coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while and we were getting caught up on what was going on with our kids. Our local team is in the NFL Playoffs and the city has football fever. It prompted us to discuss our boys and athletics. She shared her son was in soccer and was amazed how quickly kids embrace being competitive. She commented that she and her husband had gotten caught up in cheering him on and wanting him to do well. Her comments resonated with me, as I’m sure they would with most parents.
When I speak to parenting groups I often talk about competition as part of the discussion. Remember when your child was born and you had them around other children their age? if you are like most of us, you probably compared notes on where your child is with their developmental milestones. There was probably a conversation that mentioned something to the effect of: my child is ________ (fill in the blank: sleeping through the night, pulling themselves up, walking, eating solid food, never (or rarely) fusses, etc.). While the conversation isn’t about a sport, it is about how quickly or gracefully your child is progressing, and can start to feel as though your ability to parent is dependent on how quickly your child reaches a milestone. It can create great anxiety for a parent, particularly a new one. Just learning to care for the daily needs of your child, and taking care of yourself can be overwhelming, you don’t come into parenting thinking “I can’t wait to start competing with other parents!” None of us do.
As I talk to parenting groups I mention competition so the participants are aware that this feeling is normal and starts much earlier than many think. It also provides a great opportunity for each of us, as parents, to really understand how we view competition and what we want to teach our children about competition. Do you thrive to compete and win individually? Do you prefer to collaborate and win as a team? Will you do anything not to compete? How much of your identity is associated with performance? What role does competition play into your “success” (as a person, or parent)?
Both of our sons play soccer in a non-competitive soccer league. We chose this league for a few reasons: the league had a good reputation and large membership (our thinking was: they must be on to something), and my husband and I needed to get clarity for ourselves on the role competition played in our own identities and how much we wanted it to play into our children’s. I swam on a swim team as a child and learned that if I worked hard, I could win. I also learned that if I worked hard, the results would be better than if I didn’t. The second lesson was a much more valuable lesson for me as an adult. My husband ran on a cross country team. He learned that if he worked hard, his endurance to run long distances surpassed his expectations, sometimes resulting in him winning the competition. He also learned that sticking to something pays off in the long run, a valued lesson he’s leveraged as an adult.
Our boys view soccer in completely different ways. Our oldest wants to score goals and win games. My husband and I have always reiterated to our boys that they are in soccer to learn how to play and have fun, we don’t care if they score many goals or none at all. Our oldest has heard us say this numerous times, but continues to want to win. It’s more than that though, he wants to demonstrate that his hard work translates into successful results. We can certainly understand this desire, but continue to work with him on the dangers of this thinking. Having successful results is not always possible, no matter how well you prepare. It can be a slipper slope to feeling negatively about yourself and your capabilities when you aren’t able to achieve or maintain the results you desire or expect. Our youngest son could care less about being competitive. In fact, we’ve considered taking him out of soccer a few times, because he seems more interested in laughing and having fun than in learning to play. He continues to play because it keeps him active and he is having fun (that was one of the reason we said they were in soccer class after all).
As a parent it is easy to engage in the competition of parenting, the key is noticing it’s going on, and being clear on the role it plays in your life today and the role you want it to play in your child’s.
How does parenting feel like a competition? Do you feel like you’re competing with other parents, or is your child competing with other children, or both? What role do you want competition to play in your child’s life? What lesson(s) do you hope they will take or learn from it?