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.

Competition: Teaching Kids to be Gracious Winners and Good Sport Losers

Children having a sack race in park

I will start here by saying; I want my kids to be competitive. I want them to work hard, play fair, enjoy the process, celebrate the wins and learn from the losses. This goes for their academics and their athletics.

Teach cooperation first – As children grow, having a cooperative nature helps to curb the ugly side of competition. Between siblings you can give cooperative challenges such as, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed to beat the timer,” rather than, “let’s see who can get dressed first.” You might plan cooperative projects more often like washing the car together or building an obstacle course together. You can talk about your family as a “team,” or as needing to help each other out as often as possible. Highlight when children are being helpful or cooperating with others.

Introduce games with cooperative effort – There are lots of cooperative effort board games including Snail’s Pace Race (or Caterpillar Crawl, same game), Colorama, Race to the Treasure, Hoot Owl Hoot, Stone Soup, and Feed the Woozle. Cooperative effort games teach the turn taking, rule following and fun aspects of board games without the competitive component. Candy Land can be cooperative (and much shorter) if everyone is working together to move the blue guy to the end. As children get older, there’s Pandemic, Space Alert, Harvest Time and many other cooperative games.

Introduce winning and losing in small ways – By three-and-a-half or four years old, you might introduce small games with winners and losers. This includes tic-tac-toe, rock-paper-scissors and Hulabaloo which each take less than a minute or two to win or lose.

Talk through winning and losing – As you play these games, occasionally talk about what it feels like to win and what it feels like to lose. Brainstorm gracious things they can say or do when they win and good sport things they can say or do when they lose. Avoid letting your child always win, to learn how to be a good sport loser they have to have experiences with losing.

  • When your child wins, teach them to shake hands or smile and compliment the other players. This can be as simple as saying, “good game.” Directly curb boasting or any dig at the other players.
  • When your child loses, teach him to shake hands or smile and congratulate the other players. Work towards curbing tantrums and visible or loud upsets. It can be most effective to work on this out of the moment thru role play, puppet shows, drawing pictures and asking hypotheticals. There are free workshop on teaching social skills at http://parentingplaygroups.com/MemberResources/index.php/welcome/ .

Gradually play longer games – By four or five years old, move to games like Zingo, Go Fish and Uno that take a few minutes to win or lose. Then move to longer board games, such as Chutes and Ladders or Trouble. All along model, practice and discuss ways to win and lose.

Move to sports – As children can manage winning and losing at board games, you might introduce winning and losing at sports.  Again, at three, four or five years old it’s just about learning how to play, how to throw and catch and kick a ball. It’s about learning how to participate in classes and games, and how to listen to a teacher or coach. Actual winning and losing should start small here too. Think relays and races, 5 minute games, not 45 minute games.

Introduce competition – By six, seven or eight years old, many children with this supportive background are ready for competition in bigger sports. They are practiced at winning and losing, and know better how to manage themselves through the process.

Focus on individual skill building, effort, teamwork and progress – During this time and as they move into being competitive in sports, focus on their individual progress and growing skills way more than competition. Highlight their efforts, their hard work, their enjoyment and teamwork all in the positive. Focus children on doing their best, fully participating and giving their all.

Highlight the importance of practice – If your child wants to be better at something, talk about how doing anything better takes practice. Whether it’s improving her swim times or being better at playing the guitar, consistent effort and practice is what gets you there.

Reframe losing as a part of the game – To be able to play you have to learn to manage losing. Losing gives an opportunity to rethink strategies and evaluate skills, and let’s you know what to practice.

Focus on expressing your enjoyment – It might be helpful to start with the end in mind. Here’s a link to a good article that explains that even college players just want to hear, “I love to watch you play” from their parents. http://growingleaders.com/blog/what-parents-should-say-as-their-kids-perform/

Related children’s books

  • Winners Never Quit by Hamm
  • Berenstain Bears Play a Good Game by Berenstain
  • Sally Sore Loser by Sileo
  • Howard B Wigglebottom Learns About Sportsmanship by Binkow
  • Help Me Be Good Being a Bad Sport by Berry


Introducing Board Games and Card Games

I grew up in a family that played games often. Two of my favorite memories are of competitively playing Parcheesi with my grandmother (who most often won) and hearing my dad’s big family happily laughing and shouting over a game of Pit. Now, I love playing games with my own children and started them at a young age.

There are so many benefits to playing games with your children. Game play teaches turn taking and patience, how to follow rules and sportsmanship including how to be a gracious winner and a good-sport loser. Other games teach cooperative effort, critical thinking and how to strategize. There are board games specifically designed for teaching manners, flexible thinking and social skills (my girls say these aren’t so fun though) and others for teaching about earning and managing money. Across games, there are often math and literacy skills being practiced.

As you introduce and play board games, occasionally discuss what it feels like and things you can say to others when you win and lose.

Games We Love – Please add to this list!

Older Two-year-old games

  • Good Night Moon OR Things in My House
  • Snails Pace Race OR Caterpillar Crawl

Three and four year old games

  • My First Orchard
  • Count Your Chickens
  • Busytown
  • Old Maid and Go Fish
  • Hullabaloo and Cariboo
  • Candy Land
  • Memory (if you start with just a few pairs)

Five and six year old games

  • The Fairy Game
  • Race to the Treasure
  • Uno
  • Chutes and Ladders
  • Dominos
  • Zingo
  • Monopoly Jr.
  • Clue Jr.
  • Match of the Penguins
  • Spoons (card game)

Seven to nine year old games

  • Yatzee
  • Apples to Apples Jr.
  • Sorry
  • Zooreeka
  • Clue
  • Labrynith Jr.

10 to 13 year old games

  • Anomia
  • Mexican Train Dominos
  • Labrynith
  • Monopoly
  • Apples to Apples

Competition and Being First

Do your children struggle with winning and losing in play?

Are they crushed when they can’t be the first or the best at something?

Here are some tips to help you calm the competition:

  • Coach your child on how to be a good winner and a good loser – Being a good winner includes congratulating the other players, celebrating in ways that consider others and encouraging more play. Being a good loser includes congratulating the winner, expressing disappointment in comfortable ways and continuing to participate as appropriate. Teaching this can take a great deal of time and effort.
  • Even if it is really difficult, don’t avoid playing – Children who struggle with competition need more practice, not less.
  • Start small with competition – If your child has difficulty with winning and losing, it may be best to start small. It may be easier to manage emotions with a game like tic-tac-toe or Hullabaloo that takes a minute to play rather than a game like Candyland that requires a 20 minute investment.
  • Focus on cooperative efforts – For children who need to be the first or the best, offer cooperative activities more often. Think a movie rather than a board game or a relay to beat the clock rather than a race against each other.
  • Play cooperative games – Snail’s Pace Race, Colorama and Caterpillar Crawl all by Ravensburger are fun cooperative board games. You can make Candyland a cooperative effort by all being the blue guy and seeing how fast everyone working together can get him to the castle. Everybody Wins! by Sobel offers hundreds of non-competitive play ideas.
  • Read about it – Good books include The Mightiest by Kasza, Winners Never Quit and Go for the Goal: A Champions Guide to Winning in Soccer and in Life both by Mia Hamm, Timothy Goes to School by Wells and Competition: Deal with It by Messier.

Children can join my Competition Boot Camp – Sat. Oct. 9th: http://www.eventbrite.com/event/842837051

Competitive Sports

Dear Dr. Rene,
What are your thoughts on organized sports starting for kids as early as four years old? My kids seem to enjoy it most of the time, but have a hard time with the competition and have difficulty understanding the rules. Am I setting them up for failure starting too early?
From Confused!
Mother of two, ages four and six years old

Dear Confused,
General consensus is, organized sports and classes should be about exposure and learning the rules of the game for children under six years old. It is about learning how to catch and throw a ball, the language of the sport and being on a team. It seems best to wait and start keeping score as children are a bit older and able to manage it.

Many children under six years old struggle with competition and should be introduced to this gradually. Think about introducing the concept of competition through small games like tic-tac-toe, Hullabaloo or rock-paper-scissors. These games take just a few seconds to win or lose. Work your way up to longer board games and organized sports. The whole time you are playing games talk about what it means to be a good winner or good loser. Suggest and model things people can say to others when they win or lose. Practice being a good sport.
Dr. Rene

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