5 Ways to Cultivate Healthy Competition in Young Children

Competition can be ugly during early childhood. How can parents of young children get them started on the right foot?

It was finally Saturday morning, the day my four-year-old had been waiting for. The day of her first Highland dance competition, a tangible sign that she had become, in her words, “a real dancer.”

Before I had children, I was critical of parents who let their young kids compete in sports or other activities. But by the time my first daughter was old enough to compete in Highland dance, I realized it didn’t have to look like an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras.

My two daughters, ages four and six, on the way to their Highland Dance competition.

Competing has benefited my children in many ways, including:

  • Teaching them humility and respect
  • Increasing their interest in their sport or activity
  • Building confidence and trust in their parents and teachers
  • Allowing them to have a lot of fun!

But as demonstrated on the above-mentioned TV show and others like it, competition can go horribly wrong, and that’s especially ugly during early childhood. So, how can we as parents foster a healthy competitive spirit in our little ones?

Cultivating Competition

The word cultivate comes from the Latin root cultus, which means “care, labor, culture.” This word is closely related to the idea of tending plants. Just like seedlings that compete with weeds and other plants in order to emerge and flourish, children need support and cultivation in order to develop a healthy competitive spirit.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the garden lately, and I thought what better time than spring to learn some lessons from these small seedlings? Here are five lessons the natural world can teach us about cultivating healthy competition in the smallest of people.

1. Give Them Structure

You can throw a bunch of seeds in your yard and they will probably grow if you live in the right environment. But your chances of success are much greater if you give them a head start by providing healthy, well-structured soil. Good soil has the right combination of three primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Likewise, developing a solid foundation in young children requires three primary “nutrients”:

  1. Security: Make your child feel secure by communicating openly with her. As competition day comes closer, encourage her talk about any positive or negative emotions she might be feeling.
  2. Confidence: Build your child’s confidence by showing trust and getting her involved. For example, ask her to create a checklist of tasks and items you need to get ready for competition. This will make her feel confident and also get her involved and excited about the big day.
  3. A Good Coach: Our daughters have been so fortunate to have amazing dance teachers who encourage healthy competition. For example, the night before the Highland Games, their dance teacher posted this message to her students:

Well the day is almost here…how exciting! Dancers, know that as you stand on that stage with your head up, everyone will see one proud teacher. I am so proud of each and every one of you! You have all worked so hard for this day. Enjoy the moment and dance your personal best. Some may win and some may not, but in my “books” you are all winners! The only way you can disappoint me is by not being a good sport or not supporting others in your dance family. Be sure to get plenty of rest tonight.

When I asked my four-year-old what made her happy about competing, the first thing she said was, “I was happy because my teacher was there watching me dance and I love her too much.” How great is that?

With their teacher after the competition.

2. Give Them Space

Last fall I planted pumpkins and squash. The seeds took off and before I knew it, my raised bed was full. In fact, it was too full. I came away with a tiny harvest because I didn’t give the plants enough space.

In the same way, we can stifle our children’s chances of success by not allowing them room to be themselves. As a parent, what this means to me is allowing my child to compete in her own way. A little bit of comparison is natural – it is competition, after all – but it can go too far when you don’t allow your child’s personality to inform her experience.

“We can stifle our child’s chances of success by not allowing them room to be themselves. As a parent, what this means to me is allowing my children to compete in their own ways.”

For example, my two children are opposites when it comes to being on stage. My oldest was never prone to stage fright, so it has been a learning experience to work with my younger daughter, who is more timid. I have to consciously step back and let go of my expectations and previous experiences to allow her to be herself, but when I do, it’s more enjoyable and beneficial for everyone.

3. Use “Companion Planting”

Companion planting is a natural way to optimize plant growth. For example, basil is commonly planted near tomatoes since it improves their flavor and repels common tomato pests.

Likewise, competing shouldn’t be your child’s only activity. The best companion plant for young kids who compete in sports is unstructured playtime. And not in equal parts. I would say seventy percent play versus thirty percent serious, structured activity is a good ratio for kids under age seven. Early specialization can lead to overtraining and injury, not to mention emotional burnout. Provide plenty of opportunities for unstructured play if you plan to let your young child compete in her sport.

4. Know What They Need

Your chances of gardening success are much higher if you know what conditions your seeds need. Do they need sun or shade? How much water do they need? Are they sensitive to frost or high temperatures?

“Be conscious of your child’s unique personality so you can assess her needs as you prepare for competitive events.”

So it is with young children. Not all personalities are the same, and this becomes strikingly clear during competitive events. Some children need more affirmation than others. Some might be better competing with a team, whereas others might prefer individual sports. Be conscious of your child’s unique personality so you can assess her needs as you prepare for competitive events.

Showing off their medals!

5. Take It Slow

Gardeners use a process called hardening off to transition seedlings from the greenhouse to an outdoor garden. This allows the seedlings to gradually acclimate and avoid transplant shock. There are two lessons we parents can learn from this practice:

  1. Provide opportunities that are as close to real-life competition experience as possible. For example, participating in dance performances has helped my kids prepare to be on stage during a competition.
  2. Don’t overwhelm them by overscheduling competitions. My children only compete a few times a year, and at ages six and four, that’s plenty for them. The rest of the year is spent practicing and performing every now and then.

Love Is the Essential Nutrient

Above all, show your child love through words of affirmation, physical affection, and time spent together. Invite loved ones to come cheer her on and provide moral support. A child who is rooted in love will be strong and confident – in competition and in life.

Do you think young children should compete in sports? If so, what practices can parents use to build a healthy competitive spirit?

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