How to Handle Boastful, Competitive Behavior

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent who feels her son is constantly competing to be “first, better, stronger.” She suspects that sometimes his hyper-competitiveness may hurt his friends’ feelings, and it makes her uncomfortable when she notices the reactions of parents and other kids. “I’m really struggling with how to respond to these situations,” she says. “I don’t want my child making others feel crappy about themselves.”

Transcript of “How to Handle Boastful, Competitive Behavior”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. This week, I’m answering an email from a parent who’s noticed that her son has a strong, competitive drive, and he seems focused on besting his friends and boasting about it to the point that this parent is concerned that her son’s being unkind and inconsiderate. She’s wondering if I have any suggestions around that.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

“Hello Janet,

I’ve been listening to your podcast and love all the information that you give. I recently listened to the one about raising boys. The author mentioned rooster boys: boys who got to be first, better, stronger, just competitive.

An example. My son and two of his friends were doing some fun crafts. My son finished first, along with one of the friends, and the third was the very last to finish. Once the third friend joined, my son says, “Hey. You were the slowest and I’m the fastest. I finished first.”

I sat there watching and listening. After the friend moved on and went about his business, I asked my son, “Why is it important that you’re first?” His response was, “Because it’s fun.” I said, “Okay. Well, your friend wasn’t slow. He was just enjoying the craft. Do you think it feels nice when you say he’s slow?”

How would you handle this constant competition? I know it’s survival of the fittest, in some respect. It’s nature for some. I’m not competitive in the least bit. My husband is. But I’m really struggling with how to respond to these situations. More when I notice parents and other kids’ response. Also, I don’t want my child making others feel crappy about themselves. We definitely iterate kindness, thinking of others’ feelings, et cetera. Any other suggestions?”

I think first we have to understand why children behave this way. As Maggie Dent talks about in her books and in her presentations, there are personalities that are more outgoing like this. More assertive. This boy seems to have that kind of personality. Also, this is a common phase that children go through. She doesn’t tell me how old her son is, and I wish I had that missing piece here, but I’m guessing he’s somewhere between four and six probably. It is common for children to focus on winning or being the best at something, doing it more quickly, getting there first. These are situations that children like to explore.

Now, as parents, we can, without even meaning to, encourage that kind of focus by being focused ourselves on winning or even the way that we might praise our child. “Wow. You were so quick. You were the best. You won the game!” Whatever it is. That can be something that comes through. Maybe not so much from this mother, maybe more from the father, I don’t know, but children do get this idea that they should want to win somehow. They’re supposed to win.

Then there are other reasons that children might have a need to feel like they’re winning, because they feel like they are maybe losing in other ways. That can be a child with a younger sibling who feels they’ve lost the focus that used to be on them, and maybe some of their parents’ love and attention. This can be exacerbated by the normal thing that we do as parents, which is scold the other child for their behavior, if they are aggressive with their sibling or possessive. In these situations, it’s often the younger one is the good guy or the good girl, and the other one is blamed, because we naturally expect more of the older child. But the older child is actually the one who’s had to make a huge life change.  A very uncomfortable, scary life change. I don’t know if that’s going on in this case, but that’s a common reason that children will try to make themselves feel better. Compensate by focusing on needing to win, and pat themselves on the back, and be “the best.”

But we don’t need to know exactly why our child is behaving this way to do what I would recommend, which is accept where he is right now, not to try to correct him or give him the slightest message that we don’t approve. Because these feelings, like a lot of feelings children have, are bigger than him. The problem with correcting him, as this mother very gently did, is that it actually makes him feel more of the kinds of feelings of discomfort that make him want to compensate with this kind of attitude. I got to win, I got to be the best, because, inside, I don’t feel so great. I don’t feel so acceptable. We are the people, as our children’s parents, that they really, really, really need to feel accepted by. We’re the ones that matter.

Now, if this boy does need to learn about friends and what works with them, the best way for him to do that is through natural consequences. That’s the way children learn socially to adjust. They learn that children don’t want to be with them as much. Children don’t feel as good around them when they have these behaviors. Letting go of this, trusting it as a phase, without adding our own judgments on it, is actually what will help him move through this more quickly. It’ll naturally start to smooth over some of those rough edges when he feels good about himself. He will pass through.

I have a post about this called “4 Reasons We Should Let Kids Be Sore Losers.” It’s about the feelings around wanting to win. When children feel accepted and good about themselves, they have that sense of security, they have that self-confidence because their parents believe in them and know that they try out all kinds of different things. Yes, if they have rooster child, then they’re going to have a more intense, a more competitive, bigger personality. But if we trust children on all ends of this, then the “loser” isn’t devastated by this.

I’m reminded by a couple of incidences that happened with my children. One that my daughter told me about and the other one that I observed that happened with my son. My son was going to a school at that time where a lot of people with a lot more money than us attended. We were at our house and this boy with my son, he said, “This is a very small house.” I don’t even know if this boy was being boastful. He was probably just telling the truth. Children are very honest that way, too. “I’m faster.” “My house is bigger.” But my son didn’t mind at all. We can help children on both sides of this by giving them that basic trust and acceptance and empathy for all the stages they go through and all the behaviors and feelings they explore.

Then there was a girl that came over to play with my oldest daughter. My daughter told me that she said, “This is a boring house.” Both times, it was about our house. But I think she was referring to… We were pretty strict about screen time. Especially when friends were over, we didn’t see the point in that. We wanted them to be able to socialize and not just be sitting passively with a screen. I think that’s what she was referring to, that there wasn’t entertainment going on, that the girls were going to be creating their own play. When my daughter told me this, she was bemused. She thought it was a pretty funny thing to say. It didn’t bother her in the least. This girl was just being honest.

I love that about young children, that they don’t have all these filters and etiquette. But they learn. They learn best when they feel us on their side. Not disappointed in them or disapproving of what they do. They’re very sensitive towards us. Even the brash, boastful children. They are probably the most sensitive, actually, to what we think. If we think, “Ugh, this guy is being mean. He’s being obnoxious,” they’re going to feel that, unfortunately. They’re on a journey, learning how to be with other children, learning about themselves. Ideally, we will be helping them to proceed with confidence.

Last week, I talked about curiosity in our children being golden. Well, this is also golden quality in parents: curiosity. “Huh. I wonder why this guy is so focused on being the fastest? I wonder why he needs to be the best or see himself as winning right now? What’s that about for him?” I would be interested, rather than dismayed. Because once we get to that place of judgment, we can no longer really learn about our child in that moment. We can’t really see what’s going on when our own fear gets in the way. “Yikes. This guy is going to be an unkind guy with his friends.” Or “Oh, this is kind of embarrassing.”

It’s understandable. But if we go there, we’re going to close the door on understanding and empathizing with our child, staying connected, and having him feel that support. We don’t have to love every stage that our child is in, but they need us to accept.

Then if we do ask our child questions like this mother asked, “Why is it important that you’re first?”, and his response was, “Because it’s fun,” I think even then he may have sensed, because children do, that we weren’t happy that he thought it was important to be first. We didn’t completely approve of that. It wasn’t as pure a question. His response, “Because it’s fun,” children often don’t know themselves why they have these impulses. I doubt very much that he knows why it’s important to him. When children don’t know the answer, they say, “Because it’s fun,” sometimes. But I don’t think he knows or can articulate what’s going on that makes him want that so much.

This mother said, “Okay. Well, your friend wasn’t slow. He was just enjoying the craft. Do you think it feels nice when you say he’s slow?” Yes, she’s coming from a place of being uncomfortable, being disappointed, and that’s going to come through. That happens, again, when we don’t trust that our child is going through something and exploring something. This isn’t the way he’s going to be forever, and it’s not a sign that he’s an unkind person. It’s just what’s going on for him right now. We don’t want to give it power on either end by being encouraging of it, “Yeah. Yeah. Be the winner,” or being discouraging of it. That gives it power as well in an uncomfortable way, because it might make a bigger wound if there is a bit of a wound there.

What’s behind all this for us is what we think about it and what we’re afraid of. That’s what we’ve got to look at. Because when we do come from a place of trust and curiosity, we’re not intimidated or afraid of this behavior, this phase that our child’s in, then we can ask those questions. “Wow. That whole craft and all you could think about was getting done first. That’s interesting. Is the race more fun for you than the craft, do you think?” I would maybe want to explore that with my child a little, not expecting I’m going to get the answer, because my child very likely doesn’t know, but just as a way to demonstrate my acceptance actually, and my interest. That would be my purpose if I was asking questions, to demonstrate, “This is really interesting that you want to do this,” and to show my child that I’m not judging him for that. I just want to know him. I want to know more about him. That’s a way of asking about it that will bring us closer and give our child more of that feeling of acceptance that he needs. When children have that, they shine with their friends.

When children feel better, they behave better. They are kinder. They are considerate. They are empathetic towards other children because they feel deeply secure inside themselves. We can’t always create that perfectly for our children, but we can keep working in that direction. Calming our fears. Accepting the struggles, the clumsiness and awkwardness that children go through with their peers in learning how to socialize. It’s a very, very complicated type of learning.

When she says, “I’m really struggling with how to respond to these situations,” I would let it go. I don’t think you need to respond. I would take this in with interest rather than judgment.

I hope some of that helps.

Please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. Remember, both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.

Also my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents, discussing their specific parenting issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio dot com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

2 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet! This is so helpful for me with my five year old, who is navigating his first year of pre school. My somewhat related question is how to deal with more explicitly negative or annoying language that has emerged as he is navigating the social world of school. Suddenly, “potty talk” and most recently, words like “stupid,” “fat,” and “ugly” have entered his vocabulary. And unfortunately, his two-year-old brother mimics him instantly. The “potty talk” is just overwhelmingly annoying, but the more negative language is concerning to me. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this! Thanks for all your work.

  2. avatar m blankenship says:

    Hi, this is helpful, thank you. My 5 year old is extremely competitive and boastful. However I often see this behavior hurting his friends feelings. One friend is very clear and direct with him–“I don’t want to race” or “why do you always have to win?” which I think is great. But another friend will often cry and run away when he becomes competitive. How would you address this?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations