It’s fairly common for children to go through a phase of needing to be first or best at everything. This might be first to get out of the car, or first to touch the front door. It might be best at running fast or writing letters. This push varies widely with some way more than others, and boys often more than girls. It tends to start around four years old and hopefully subsides for most by seven or eight.
As difficult as this phase can be, it is at least partly stemming from a good place. As children grow they are gradually developing a sense of self. For two year olds, the focus is ‘who am I in this family?’ For three and four year olds, it is ‘what am I good at, what do I like?’ For four and five year olds, it’s ‘how do I rank with those around me?’ When you have a bunch of five year olds moving through a phase of ranking themselves against each other, there is bound to be some competition.
A child’s self esteem has its foundation partially in a growing sense of competence. As children learn new skills and rise to face new challenges, the outcome is a bolstered sense of self. Children often feel proud of their new skills, as they should. This pride and the language that comes with it may also increase the comparisons.
What to Do
Start with empathy often – When children are emotional, empathy is so often the best place to start. For this, it might be “I know you are frustrated. You really wanted to be first.” This is before any coaching, limit or discipline.
Refocus on effort, fun or friendship – You might comment on how hard they are working, how much fun the game was or how they are making so many new friends.
Refocus on individual skill building and practice – If they are frustrated from being third, you might follow empathy with, “I know you like to run fast. We can practice running in the backyard.”
Avoid pointing out they are better than others – This would be saying, “I know you lost to John, but you were faster than Eric.” This heightens the focus on competition.
Avoid pointing out other strengths – This might be, “you may not be as fast as him, but you draw really well.” This is just agreeing your child is slow, and, again, it’s competitive.
Solve it – Especially between siblings, in the long run you might want to make a rule with the goal of ending the debate. Some families do odd and even days, on odd days one child goes first at everything and makes all the decisions on even days the other. Some families have bracelet days, meaning whoever is wearing the bracelet is first and makes decisions, and the bracelet is passed daily.
Highlight practice – It is good for children to realize that practice and effort are the ways to get better at just about everything. The more they practice at or learn about something the better they will be and more confident they will feel.
Give cooperative challenges – Over time it can be helpful to give cooperative challenges. Between siblings better to say, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed before me,” so they are working together. Rather than saying, “let’s see who can get dressed first,” so they are hating each other while they get dressed. If it’s a rush to touch the door first, it is stopping them and, instead, challenging them to touch the door with their noses at the same second. There are a few books for cooperative effort ideas: Everybody Wins: 150 Non-Competitive Games for Kids by MacGregor and Everybody Wins: 393 Non-Competitive Games for Young Children by Sobel.
Focus good sportsmanship – Rather than focusing on winning and being first, focus your parenting language on being a good sport, a team player. It may be helpful to suggest language each time and help them to be a good sport for a while.
Encourage them to cheer for others, be happy for others – Being a good sport includes handling loosing in a good way. This is as small as managing when they don’t touch the front door first when running from the car. This may take lots of review. It’s saying things like “good job,” or, “wow, you were fast,” to the other child. It might be easiest to introduce this when they aren’t involved in the competition. An example of this would be cheering as a spectator at their siblings soccer game.
Encourage being nice when they are first too – Being a good sport equally includes winning well. Kids who are pressed to be first may go overboard when they beat others. This can be as little as giving a high five or saying “that was fun!”
Focus on teamwork rather than individual – It may be helpful to focus your parenting language on teamwork, cooperation and the benefits of working together. This may include referring to your family as a team. You might point out one way each day that various family members are helping or cooperating with each other. With other children, it may be helpful to remind them they are friends and to think about at least one thing they like about the other.
Teach children to compete with their own personal best – If it’s running, point out that they are faster or they ran farther than they did before. Again, helpful to focus on their effort, progress and practice.
Start teaching to win and lose at games and sports – Being comfortable with winning and losing at games and sports can carry over towards this push to be the first or the best. Here is a post about learning to manage that competition.