Everything seems to be a competitive activity in our house at the moment, even activities you would never have considered remotely competitive, such as having a drink. At mealtimes Little Bear studies how much is in each person’s glass and judges who has the most/least. He tries to drink his first so that he can be “in gold”. I am frequently heard saying, “This isn’t a competition. It doesn’t matter who finishes first, please just eat your food.” Of course no one cares and Little Bear continues to aim for poll position.
I am not against competition per se. In fact every member of The Bear Household is pretty competitive in their own way but I suspect things are getting a little out of hand. Not being the first to get dressed/ get out the door/ get up the stairs can be enough to induce a meltdown in Little Bear. It isn’t usually a big affair but it can certainly lead to a change of mood and make the next part of the routine/ trip out that little bit more challenging.
I have also noticed that normal play situations are somehow frequently turning into competitions. Little Bear was off poorly for the last two days of term and so was Grizzly so we tried to have some quality 2:1 time with him. We got the Hot Wheels cars and track out for a game. The game could have gone anywhere. We could have built a big track with loads of jumps. We could have built a garage. We could have arranged all the cars. What we actually ended up doing was having races to see who went the furthest or whose car was fastest. It was a big competition. The more Little Bear won, the louder he got. The more Little Bear lost, the more irate and controlling he became. Either way, he found the whole situation pretty over-stimulating and soon needed to do something else.
I think the problem is more pronounced in a structured game situation where competition is meant to be part of the scenario. I guess when Little Bear was younger we didn’t play many such games because he found rules difficult and he struggled to follow instructions. He has made brilliant progress with his comprehension and has picked up the idea of a fairly wide range of games now and has enough concentration to play them. The difficulty is that his strong desire (need?) to win often obliterates the intended fun element of the game. Little Bear gets increasingly wound-up if he seems to be losing, even if someone else scores just one point, and quickly turns towards self-hatred. We get a lot of “I’m stupid” or “I’m rubbish at this” or “I can’t do anything” or “I’m an idiot”. Obviously this is unpleasant and I don’t want playing games to be a negative experience for him. I don’t want to erode the fragile sense of self-confidence we have worked hard to develop.
However, equally, I want Little Bear to be able to function in the big wide world and, in real life, you can’t win all the time. It can be tempting to ignore the methods he uses to manipulate his victory (changing scores when he thinks you aren’t looking, changing the rules to suit himself, moving playing pieces about etc.) because life would be a lot easier that way. He would win, you would lose, he would be happy. I know that would be a short-term view though and long-term I would have a child who just couldn’t cope with competitive situations unless he always won and, as we have already established, real life doesn’t work like that.
If I don’t want him to have winning/losing issues forever, I need to be willing to tackle it. As with most things that require ‘tackling’ that inevitably means short-term pain for long-term gain. Seeing as though it is the summer holidays and we are going to play a lot of games now seems as good a time as any.
As with most things, my default for tackling tricky behaviours is, rightly or wrongly, to be direct and specific. I am clear about the expectations of a game and what constitutes cheating. I have started verbally calling out cheating. I have started pointing out that people don’t like cheating and people won’t want to play if another player is cheating. I will say that I won’t play if there is cheating and I’ll be willing to follow through on this.
Inevitably if there isn’t any cheating, Little Bear will end up in a position of losing some of the time. I am trying to reassure him that it doesn’t matter if you lose. Somebody always loses and that’s ok. If I lose or Grizzly loses, we make a point of saying how we don’t mind. Sometimes I have a comedy strop or stamp my foot, to show Little Bear he is not alone in finding losing difficult, but I only do it in a messing about way and show him how we can quickly move on. We try to emphasise the fun part of playing.
I am trying to get inside Little Bear’s head and figure out how his thought processes are working. I assume it is something along the lines of ‘I’m losing at this game therefore I’m no good at it. I’m not good at many things (if any things) and this is just another thing I’m failing at. I’m a failure. I’m a bad and worthless person”. I am trying to break this negative thought cycle for him. I’ll praise how well he is doing at the game or comment on how something was particularly tricky but he managed it anyway. I might say something about how confident I am he’ll be able to do a part of it, even though it’s hard because he is so clever etc. I might say something like, “I know you haven’t got as many points as you’d like but that’s because the game is hard. It is not because you can’t do it”. I might throw in a random comment that has nothing to do with the game about how impressed I was with how he did x, y or z earlier in the day. I might comment that I know he finds losing hard and I want to help him with that. I will try and help him understand that no matter how he reacts this time or how he reacted last time, he has the power within him to act differently next time. Sometimes one of us can make a joke just at the right moment to distract him away from the negative thoughts.
Sometimes, when we are playing properly, Little Bear will say, “See, I’m losing, you want me to lose” and I will need to do a whole lot of other re-framing about my feelings towards him and how I certainly don’t want to keep him down and how it is just luck whether you win or lose a game most of the time.
It can be a little waring as many of the things that are meant to be fun turn into quite a challenging situation that as a grown-up you need to manage and be emotionally on your toes for. Like with most tricky behaviours it can take quite a long time to see any change so I suspect we are still in the early stages of making any difference. I’m not too worried though because perseverance and consistency usually pay off.
Also, it is only day 2 of the holidays and I’m still pretty cheerful. Perhaps someone could remind me of this optimism in a few weeks?!
Although I do want Little Bear to get better at coping with losing, I don’t want to dampen his inner drive. Competitiveness is a really good characteristic if put to good use and I feel as though his desire to be better and do better has already served him well. Little Bear has many genuine excuses for not performing well at school or not behaving well but he has never rested on them. He has always strived to behave as well as he can; to learn and to achieve. Every reading level he has been on has been viewed by him as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and consequently he has already surpassed all of our expectations. Little Bear was not satisfied with being in the lowest group in his class so he has worked hard to get out of it. I love his strength of character and work-ethic. I really feel they will serve him well in life. His desire to be the best he can be is admirable. I just don’t want him to have to be the best, over everyone else, in every situation and to become easily wounded if he cannot achieve it. I suppose I don’t want him to be ruthlessly competitive. I don’t want him to live a life ruled by competition, where winning equates to happiness and losing to the depths of despair. That would be quite an extreme way to live.
I suppose I’m aiming for balance. A healthy competitive streak, focussed on what matters – career, chosen sport, academic targets, whatever is important to Little Bear, tempered by a good humour and solid sense of self-confidence.
I don’t think we can achieve all that this holiday but we can get cracking.