Care and Feeding

My Daughter Is a Little Too Competitive

How do I make her see that winning isn’t everything?

Competitive child dancer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Do you have advice for good parenting when your kid is in a judged individual sport? For my 8-year-old it’s Irish dance, but it’s similar for other types of dance, gymnastics, figure skating. My daughter loves to dance in general but is also really into the results she gets in competition. I really have no idea how to balance ideas like “Winning isn’t the only thing,” “Do it for the fun of it,” “Look at your own personal improvement and not how you compare to others” with my daughter’s competitive nature. Right now, she’s at a less competitive level, but if she progresses, it could get pretty intense. Help!!

—In It to Win It

Dear IItWI,

I suspect that part of what you’re getting hung up on here is that your daughter is handling a situation differently than you would. She’s taking the competition totally on, wants to crush or be crushed, and is fully about that life. You, as a kindhearted and mature adult, see the obvious pitfalls of this approach and, it seems, are uncomfortable watching her do it her way.

But guess what: She’s gonna do it her way. And she should. Our job as parents is less to change who our kids are, and more to help them navigate the world as they are. You can’t make her less competitive. You can tell her that you can see a potential downside to that. You can’t make her focus on the journey, not the goal, but you can let her know that such a concept exists and how you’ve found it helpful. Whether or not she ever embraces that is, quite frankly, entirely out of your control.

And that’s for the best. Just because our kids do stuff differently than we want them to doesn’t always mean they’re doing it wrong. She may like being competitive. She may like winning. She may fucking hate losing, but actually like fucking hating losing. All of this may work for her, in some bizarre way that you might never entirely understand. Even if it does not work for her now, she may be learning how to make it work for her, because that’s who she is. If, when you were doing competitive sports as a youngster, you found it chill enough to show up on Saturday, come in fourth place, eat some french fries, and get on with your life, you probably wouldn’t have appreciated a parent always up in your face talking about how you have to try harder because that’s how greatness is made. You’d probably have been like, “Congratulations, but that’s not me, so kindly buzz off.”

I’m not guaranteeing that your daughter feels that way. But I’m asking you to recognize that this may be a possibility, and to parent with the requisite humility to understand that your kid may know something about herself better than you do.

So sure. Tell her she can take it easy. Tell her to do it for the love. Tell her what you actually believe. But don’t expect that it’s better if she listens. She’ll find her own thing over time. And that’s the great thing about the relationship between parents and their children. You do what you do. You let them do what they do. What happens in the end is the balance.

More Care and Feeding:

My 15-Year-Old Is a Little Too Chill. How Do I Get Him to Care?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How to break bad sleep habits? My 8-year-old has come in and slept on our floor almost every night for a year now. I think it’s a reaction to little brother (5) who has climbed into bed with us for a few years now. We never intended it, but now I don’t notice since it usually happens at 3 or 4 in the morning. I’d like to break them both of the habit, but I’m a heavy sleeper too and know that it will probably involve drama or tears as well. Ideas?

—Full Bedroom

Dear FB,

If you’re looking for ideas about how to avoid drama or tears, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. They may not be guaranteed, but the only way to do what you need to do here is to accept that everyone is going to have to be uncomfortable for a little while.

I might suggest an incremental approach. Start by telling your kids that beginning next week or what have you, they must spend the whole night in their rooms. But set aside one day—maybe Saturday night or something—where the rules are off and they can come in. I would also make clear that this exception too will end, maybe setting an upcoming birthday, school transition, or family trip as the cutoff, so that it doesn’t feel entirely arbitrary.

Also, make it a thing. Name it! Project All Through the Night or whatever. Remind them when putting them to bed: OK! This is it! Read extra stories, or maybe introduce a new object or toy that they can keep with them and use to mark the transition. Maybe it’s a new stuffed animal, poster, or lamp that they get to pick out. One per kid, entirely their choice. And finally, I’d set an alarm at 4 a.m., or whatever time your youngest is sneaking in without you knowing (I know, I know), and if there are any unauthorized persons in that room, I would wake up to take them back. This cannot work if they find loopholes. They must not, under any circumstances, greet the sunrise from the comfort of your master bedroom.

The point here is the combination of iron fist and velvet glove. You must recognize that this will be a big transition for everyone; it’s absolutely right to take time to mark that transition, understand it, hell, even honor it. (I live in California, what can I say.) But the iron fist is in the resolve. This change is happening. It’s not not happening. They must know that, and so you must know that.

All of this is a lot of work. There may be rough nights and there may well be tears, but unless you want to be cosleeping with these clowns until puberty hits, I suggest you grab the bull by the horns. You’ve gotten yourself into a situation (no shame, happens to the best of us) and getting out is not easy, but it is possible. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 3-year-old daughter suddenly gets very, very upset when we play music. The odd thing is that she used to love to listen to music and dance. Now, as soon the speakers turn on, she starts screaming that we need to turn it off. Once, my wife spent 45 minutes letting her scream at the top of her lungs, after which she accepted and started dancing and singing to the music. This, however, is not something we’d like to go through every day, nor would our neighbors. For the past six months, we’ve been not listening to music, and we’re not loving it. Her older sister also loves music, and we don’t want to keep music from her. Most importantly, we are sure that when our youngest gets past this, she really enjoys listening and dancing to music. What should we do?

—Little Music Critic

Dear LMC,

Buy this child some cheap noise-canceling headphones and tell her that whenever music comes on, she’s absolutely free to put them on and not listen. Then get the hell on with your dance party. No 3-year-old should be given the power to Footloose an entire family.

—Carvell