Does your child always want to be first? Do they always want to win? I see this behaviour a little bit in some younger children but more around children from 5 years and up.
Let’s have a look what we can do in our homes when we see competitive behaviour.
Montessori and the lack of competition
Montessori is known for its non-competitive peer learning environment. In the classroom, even from the youngest ages, we nurture working together as a community. Things that encourage less competition and more collaborations are:
- the idea that everyone belongs and contributes – it is our role as guide in the classroom (or the home) to help each child feel valued and that they contribute. (Recommended reading: Children who are not yet peaceful, by Donna Bryant Goertz)
- children love learning not in order to pass tests and be better than others, but to better understand the world around them and solve problems. When there are no marks to compare each other, there doesn’t have to be a top student and a bottom student. We are helping each child where they are at. Whether they find a subject easy or difficult, as their guide we are looking to continue to challenge them and to help them build on what they know so they can scaffold the skills to learn a further step/difficulty/skill. In the book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard writes, “Grades and evaluation seem to reduce prosocial behaviour in the classroom by fostering a competitive atmosphere. … [In] Montessori classrooms competition is minimised by the lack of grades.”
- the Montessori guide observes to see if a child has mastered a skill/s rather than using tests
- in the Absorbent Mind, Dr Montessori talks about there only being one of each material in the classroom. She explains that this removes confusion, allows each child to work for as long as they need to, the materials will be returned to the shelf ready for another student, and the children learn to respect the materials. In addition, children learn to wait their turn and respect other’s work too.
- It’s not a rush. Children are not rewarded for finishing first. Yet children are surprisingly self-motivated to continue to want to master things for themselves. I was speaking to Heidi Phillipart-Alcock, a 0-3 trainer, and even though not competitive she talked about that human need to work, to self-correct, to repeat and to perfect, what Dr Montessori and Mario Montessori called “human tendencies.” Watch a baby who keeps batting at a ball until they connect their hand again with the ball to make the bell ring, a toddler who is happy to read the same book again and again, a preschooler who fills up every vase in the classroom with water and places flowers carefully in each, etc.
How can we help children at home
Some children are wired to be more competitive. And sometimes we create the competition often unknowingly. So here are some ideas to consider if you have a child showing competitive behaviour.
1. Are we encouraging competition in our home? Do we ask, “Who can get ready first?” “Who can be my best helper?” “Who ate all their dinner?”
Instead could we encourage collaboration, “Let’s see how quickly we can get ready for school,” and then those who are ready first can help the last ones if they need help.
“I need help. Is anyone available?” as children’s ability and willingness to help differs depending on what they are doing in that moment and even at different ages.
“You listened to your bodies and stopped when you were full.” or “It sounds like you’d like more? Are you still hungry?” applying the principles of “equal is not equal” and “treat each child uniquely” from Siblings without rivalry
2. When they compare themselves to others, can we focus instead on the individual? They often try to bring up a sibling or another child to compare to and we can bring it back to listen to what they are saying they need, and remove the focus from the other child.
When they whinge or moan, “It’s not fair. They got two and I only got one,” instead of us lecturing or moralising, for example when we say, “Things don’t always go our way,” instead we can acknowledge how they feel, “It sounds like you really wanted more. I can see why it must have been frustrating that there weren’t enough for everyone to get two. Yeah, I hear you.” Notice I don’t mention the other sibling/child; I stay focused on them and their feelings. Then once they’ve vented then we can move into problem solving mode, “what could you do next time?” etc
When they boast, “I’m the fastest/strongest” we can respond without building up competition and focus on the individual, “It sounds like you love running fast/feeling strong!”
3. Are we clear on how we share/take turns in our home? If we are not clear, then the children cannot be clear what is expected. In our house, all of our toys belonged to everyone (except for a special bunny/bear each for bedtime). If someone had just received a new gift then they usually wanted to keep it as their special thing for a couple of weeks, but then it again became something anyone could use. In our house, we also had the same agreement as in a Montessori classroom that they would share by taking turns. Whoever was playing with something could play with it for as long as they would like. And, to be honest, around the age of 3, they began playing more and more together. Which leads to the next question…
4. Do you have collaborative activities available? From collaborative board games to more open-ended toys like wooden blocks, magnatiles, farm animals, lego. Our homes are not Montessori classrooms and I believe there is space for both Montessori-style activities and open-ended activities. There are opportunities for social development from both – in Montessori activities they learn to wait for their turn, to get deep focus, to concentrate and to build mastery; they learn to respect another’s work by walking around where they are working, how to interrupt if needed, and to return something to its place so it’s available for someone else. And with open-ended activities we learn to accept others ideas, find ways to solve problems together, build collaboratively, and work on a shared goal.
One of our favourite collaborative board game was Orchard by Haba, and for older children Pandemic, The Mind, Hanabi, and Space Team. You can also find other collaborative board games at Montessori Services here too.
5. Can we focus on the process, not the end result? I talk a lot on the podcast about intrinsic motivation (wanting to do something because we are internally motivated to do it) rather than extrinsic motivation (such as a reward, bribe, praise, threat or punishment). I also wrote a blog post about it too.
To allow intrinsic motivation to express itself and build what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset, one thing we can do is to focus on encouraging the process, not just the end product. For example:
- “I saw you brought another chair to the table for your friend.”
- “Look at you both working to move that log together.”
This can help a child who wants to be best to focus on all the steps along the way, not just the outcome. It could be in relationship with another child, or also when we notice them pracitising and repeating something they are working to master.
6. Does your family have an abundant mindset? In my view, in a Montessori classroom there is an abundant mindset – every child can achieve their best, not at the expense of someone else. There is enough time to learn, there is enough space for each child, and every child is valued. Compare that to a lack mindset where we might often express not having enough time for everything or everyone; if someone else wins, then another person loses; and some children are considered more worthy than others.
So consider the views expressed in your family – do our children absorb an abundant mindset or one of lack?
7. Is there a new family member? Having a new baby in the home can bring out a need to be the best in a child because they have a need to be seen. They may feel uncertain of their place, we might have less time to be with them, and life in their home has changed. It can be a big change for an older sibling.
Some small ways we can help them through this time is to:
- acknowledge their feelings – “having a new baby in the house can be hard”
- talk about them to the baby – “I see Oliver is shaking the maracas along to the music…”
- include them – “would you like to help bath the baby?”
- make time for 1:1 with them – “let’s write it in our notebook and do that together on our special Sunday morning outing”
- understand changes in their behaviour and accept them even when they are having a hard time
Jane Nelsen of the Positive Discipline books also has a beautiful ritual you can do. If you have one child and expecting your second and you have a partner, then you would need 4 candles. You light the first and say “This is me and all the love I had.” Then you take another candle and lighting it from the first, “And then I met your mum/dad and I shared my love with them.” And then you show how as each child was born you share your light with the third candle, the fourth and your love continues to grow. It’s such a beautiful, visual way for them to see that your love grows as your family does.
8. Can we practise sporting conduct – winning and losing? Whilst we have little competition in a Montessori classroom, there are times when children will be playing sport or playing a game and we then have an opportunity to teach them sporting conduct. They are learning to balance doing their best and having the skills/form to compete, with ideas like equity and fairness.
In our home there have definitely been times when someone has had a hard time losing (the adults as well). So we practised the grace and courtesy of saying “Congratulations” to the winner and the winner would say “Better luck next time.” We would focus on how we all played, rather than who won.
I remember Heidi Phillipart-Alcock telling me they would play lots of short games (eg, card games like Ligretto for older children) so that there was a lot of winning and losing hands. This can also help a child who has a hard time losing.
On the sportsfield, we can focus on playing our best, trying to improve ourselves rather than always needing to win, and to be a good sport whether we win or lose.
It takes a lot of repetition and practice.
Also, we can be careful not to dismiss it if our child is upset when they lose. Often we say, “C’mon. It’s just a game.” Instead, a comforting arm and sitting with them, “It’s hard to see you sad when you lose,” or “It can be hard to lose when you really tried your best” can help you to maintain connection even when they are having a hard time.
9. Can we plan 1 on 1 time with each child? Life gets busy and it can be hard to make one on one time with all of our family. It could be as small as doing groceries together, “Special Mama and Oliver time!” or baking something together or going to the playground or for a hot chocolate at your local cafe.
If we don’t have a partner, we can get creative by doing some play swap dates with friends, getting family to help, or book a babysitter for an hour.
10. Can we focus on the needs of the child and the needs of the family? I like to remember, when the child is getting competitive, what are they trying to tell me? What are their needs? And how can we balance that need with the rest of the family so we can all have our needs met?
It’s not always going to be possible to make everyone happy. We will have times when we sit with them and support them when they are disappointed things didn’t go their way, they are having a hard time, they lost, they missed out. And they will know that we do our best to see each of our children and support them, while caring for ourselves too.
It’s about living together. It’s not perfect. In fact at times it can be messy. Just like in our Montessori classrooms. We are learning to live in community. And that’s a beautiful thing to be learning.
I’ll leave you with a story I once heart about Herbie. I believe it’s actually from a business book about being agile called “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt. There was a group going hiking and Herbie was at the back. He was the slowest and slowing the whole group down. He looks like he’s the problem, right? But in fact, when they worked out that if they helped carry some of his load then the group would go faster, Herbie is actually the solution.
It cannot hurt to teach our children about more collaboration and less competition. Doing their best while helping others too. Montessori is not just about learning independence; it’s about interdependence and the child in society.
As Catherine McTamaney beautifully writes, “Montessori calls us to destroy, and then to show the horizon. And if we are to take that metaphor all the way through, it means we’re on the same side of the wall. We won’t be able to show anyone the horizon if they’re under the rubble of the walls we just destroyed. But if we’re pushing together, from the same side, the view promises to be spectacular.”