Last fall, our four-year-old, Theo, competed in his first race. It was a 1K fun run, a fundraiser put on by the physical therapy students at the University of Montana. They called it the Skeleton Skedaddle, and it was scheduled for the weekend before Halloween. Kids of all ages were invited. Costumes were encouraged. There would be snacks and prizes. When we asked Theo if he wanted to it, it was like we’d just offered him some ice cream. He was thrilled.
He was also supremely confident. “I’m going to win,” he informed us on the morning of the race, as he slipped on a pair of hand-me-down Nikes. “I’m the fastest runner in the world.”
I was a little surprised that this was his first thought. I also felt that involuntary twitch parents feel when their child is sailing, obliviously, toward disappointment. I wanted to protect Theo, so I had to correct him. “Well, you’re not the fastest,” I said. “There are loads of people faster than you. Have you heard of Usain Bolt?”
My wife, Hilly, tried another tack. “You know how Papa and I run in races sometimes?” she asked. “We don’t run them to win. We just try to push ourselves and have a good time.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever won a race in my life,” I added supportively.
Theo gave us a quiet, pinched look. “But it will be fun,” Hilly said. “You’ll see. Let’s just get out there and see how it goes.”
There was already a crowd gathered when we arrived. It wasn’t exactly the Boston Marathon, but there was a big, inflated starting gate, music, and that humming prerace energy. Theo, dressed as a sugar snap pea, shifted his weight from foot to foot, with a faraway look in his eyes.
At the starting line, he met up with his buddy Lyndon—a four-year-old dressed convincingly as a ninja, with plastic short swords strapped to his back. They lined up under the starting gate next to ladybugs and princesses, and then they were off.
Theo was quickly at the back of the pack. I ran alongside him and watched his little legs splash through the puddles. Before long his breathing quickened. His cheeks went red and then sallow. It was the longest continuous run of his life.
It probably took about ten minutes for Theo to come in 23rd out of 34. At the finish line, he was happy enough to wrap his hands around a snickerdoodle. But he also seemed a little older. He knew that someone had won this race, and that it definitely wasn’t him. Prizes were given out to the first-place boy and girl. Lyndon got a bag of candy for his costume. Theo got nothing.
His feelings welled up later, in the car. “I’m the worst runner ever,” Theo lamented. “I’ll never win anything.”
I didn’t know what to say. Hilly and I aren’t hypercompetitive people, so Theo’s obsession with winning caught us off guard. Before the race, I had tried to tether his expectations. But now he was demoralized, and I didn’t want that either. Was it a terrible idea to enter him in a race, even a fun run, at his age?
I also felt that Theo’s earlier confidence that he was guaranteed victory implicated us. He is lucky to have a doting family and a lot of love. When he got that pair of Nikes from his cousin, for example, we all said, “Wow, you’re going to run so fast in those shoes!” His world was shaped by hyperbole, attention, and praise. No wonder his expectations were grand. And of course, all this well-intentioned support was setting him up for inevitable disappointment.
What’s more, I realized that we’d been injecting competition into his life since he learned to walk. At first it was chasing him around the house. Then it was racing him down the road—and letting him win. Even our games of Go Fish were usually rigged in his favor. We also used competition as a strategy to get him to come home from the playground or to clean up his Lego Duplo.
“Do you think you can clean up that mess before I wash all the dishes?” we’d ask. The race was on. It was relentless.
Some childhood-development experts, like Alfie Kohn, argue compellingly that American culture fetishizes winning and that “healthy competition” is a contradiction in terms. Kohn defends this position in his 1992 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition.
But I’m not ready to throw out competition completely. I just want to teach Theo to compete in a way that prioritizes effort, fun, and fulfillment over victory. So I called up Ashley Merryman, a journalist and the author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. I told her the story of Theo’s race, his hubris and disappointment. She responded with some good news.
“The most important thing you just said was that he’s four years old,” she said. “At four, you’re still the center of the universe. You’re the best at everything.”
This is especially true for first children, who have no older siblings to outperform them. At age four, children are still accumulating the life experience and brain development to situate themselves among their peers.
“By five,” Merryman said, “if you ask your son, ‘Who is the best athlete in your class, and who is the best reader?’ he’ll know.”
The value of competition, Merryman said, is that it teaches us about our strengths. “It’s not about beating the other guy,” she said. “It’s about using other people’s performance to gauge whether you’re good or bad at something.”
When a child competes in a race, for example, it’s a chance to learn if he enjoys running. If he does, and he’s good at it, he may be motivated to pursue it toward excellence. Along the way he’ll learn a host of positive values like persistence, discipline, and grit.
“The thing to learn,” Merryman added, “is that if something is important to you, you have to work at it. That concentration will hold him, no matter what he eventually pursues.”
Merryman also pointed out that competition occurs on a spectrum. Competition is meaningless to novices who are still learning the skills and rules of an activity. But it is equally abstract for the truly elite.
“I know Olympians who throw tantrums when they win a race,” Merryman said. “Their goal wasn’t to win, it was to break a record. Where competition really matters is the intermediate. That’s the point where you start saying, ‘I think I’m pretty good at this. There’s only one way to know.’”
Merryman bemoans the feel-good culture in which every kid gets a medal. “To me, that message is that nothing is worth doing unless you come home with a trophy,” she said. But equally detrimental, in her opinion, is teaching kids that they need to win at all costs. Merryman calls this “maladaptive competition.”
“A maladaptive competitor tries to get a promotion at work or a parking space at the mall with the same ferocity,” she said. “No one wants to be around that person.”
Fortunately, there is a middle ground in which competition is motivating, exciting, and fun. The best way to nudge kids in this direction is to concentrate on improvement rather than winning, Merryman said. This is certainly the mindset I apply to my running. I never expect to win a race, but I consider it a victory if I run the course faster than I did last year. And, of course, it should be fun and feel good, too.
To this end, it’s important that, as parents, we watch what we say when we guide our children through races, bike rides, or rock climbs. Our words should focus on what they are doing, not who they are.
“You should say, ‘That was a good climb’ as opposed to ‘You’re a good climber,’” Merryman said. “Because if he falls the next time, is he no longer a good climber? If you focus on the process, you can talk about how to do it better next time. It’s always about skill development and not about the outcome.”
I’ve been trying to take Merryman’s advice to heart, and the other night I got an indication that we may be making progress. I was in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, when Theo rushed in with a plastic lion riding a Duplo car with a grocery bag tied behind it. “Papa,” he said, “this is Liony. He’s a drag racer. He’s the best racer in the world. He’s won 61 bazillion hundred races.”
“He sounds very accomplished,” I said.
“And well trained,” Theo added. “The first race he did, he lost. Then he practiced lots and lots of times. And now he’s the best.”
I hope Theo learns that “the best” is an elusive goal. But like Merryman says, he’s four. So if he’s starting to talk about practice, I’ll consider that a victory.