When a Child has to be FIRST or be BEST at Everything

Little brother and sister running

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.

When Children Argue, Build Their Skills

Zwei Kinder streiten sich

So often when children argue, parents intervene and solve the issue. Two children are arguing over a toy, a parent enters and decides who gets the toy and what the other child should do while they wait. Or, two children are arguing over who goes first, a parent comes in and picks which one while giving empathy or direction to the other.

When parents intervene and fix, the children are missing out on a golden opportunity to learn the skills needed to solve such social conflicts. Rather than intervene and fix, it should be intervene and teach the needed skills.

When children are arguing, a good first steps is often empathy all around. If my girls are arguing over a ball I might start with, “I know you are both frustrated, I could hear you from down the hall. You both want that toy.” This also teaches children to start with empathy which is often helpful.

Teach them to listen to each other’s words. This might be, “Did you hear your brother? He said, ‘stop.’ What does that mean to you?” or, “I heard her screaming. She clearly doesn’t like that.” You are reinforcing the other’s words to each child. Often, by the time children are arguing, they aren’t listening well.

If needed, teach them to speak up for themselves.  Many children are all over this one, they speak up for themselves quite well. If your child is on the quiet side, you might have to coax some words out of them or give them some words to say, so they can at least hold their own. You might follow this up with reinforcing their new words to the other. It can be helpful to teach your child to use an assertive voice in conflicts.

Once they feel understood or heard, the next step is to help them focus on solutions. You might ask them each to give an idea, or you might suggest a few ideas and discuss. You might teach them to weigh their options and negotiate together. The goal is to give them ways to find solutions and work through the issue together, rather than giving them the solution. This may take time and effort; it may take more empathy. It may also include taking a break and coming back to problem solving once children are calm.

If the problem solving process continues to be difficult, you might step back and coach them to be more flexible thinkers. These ideas for teaching flexible thinking are best done out of the moment, when all are calm.

  • Brainstorm options – Out of the moment of conflict, teach them how to brainstorm. This can be saying, “we don’t have time for bath tonight. Let’s think of three ways to you can get clean before school tomorrow.” Answers might include taking a quick shower, using a washcloth at the sink or taking a bath in the morning. On a game night you might say, “everyone wants to play different games. Let’s think of three ways we can settle this.” Answers might include one game each night for three nights, starting early or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide. When brainstorming, it is fine to include funny or crazy answers.
  • Plan A/Plan B – You might model Plan A/Plan B language several times before you ask them to problem solve this way. You might say, “we were supposed to run three errands today, but we only got to two, and we are running out of time. That was our Plan A, and we need a Plan B.”
  • Big problem/Little problem – It can be helpful to have children decide what are big problems, and what are little problems. In our house big problems may take a few days to solve, or several people. A few days later, someone might be upset. Little problems might only take one or two people, and a little while to solve. No one is upset about it a day later. Point out big problems and little problems in life. Then have children try to categorize their own problems.
  • Play games that require flexible thinking and discuss – This includes Labyrinth (by Ravensburger), Gobblet, Connect Four and Rush Hour Jr.. In all of these games, players have a plan and then it gets knocked out, and they have to make another plan. This may happen several times in each game. While you play, at least occasionally point out having to make a new plan or come up with new solutions.

When children are able to work through arguments, be sure to give them descriptive praise for their efforts, negotiation, flexibility or cooperation. Here is a post about descriptive praise.

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