On Raising a Super Competitive Child
On a recent cloudy afternoon, my Kolkata home erupted in loud cheers. “Goal!” my father cried, and then we all clapped, singing “Ocho is the best!” My 2.5-year-old had yet again kicked the ball with extreme skill and confidence. The little goalpost (an old cardboard box) had bounced backward from the force with which he had sent the ball across.
“And that is why we named you after a footballer!” my father, probably the proudest dadu in the world, told him. “You are a natural!”
The whole scene was a delight, even if a little exaggerated. We have since spent many afternoons honing my son’s kicking and dodging techniques. And since he would howl in disappointment when he didn’t manage to score or send the ball straight, and became angsty if we said, “Oh no!” whenever he missed — yes, we allowed him win a lot.
Until I slowly noticed a pattern emerging – both on and off the pitch.
Ochoa suddenly needed to win in everything he did. He needed to finish his puzzles first. He needed to finish the rice on his plate before his dadu. He even gulped down his milk, coughing it up as a result. The idea of competition – of winning — had taken such a hold of my child that the few misses made him go cuckoo.
I know it’s in the genes. As an adult, my competitiveness keeps me focused and hungry to do better. It is an in-built compass, a drive that leads me to take on more challenges, get better at skills new or old, and break my own record. But when I was growing up, with a sister four years older to me, everything seemed like a challenge – and every challenge a chance to win.
When my sister started bringing books from the school library and flaunting her knowledge of a newly read story, I realised what ‘fomo’ was long before millennials coined the term. Soon after, I had chicken pox and I used that month off from school to learn to read.
Similarly, I learned how to play badminton only because I saw her having a ball playing it. She and our father would keep score in their matches, while I was treated as ‘kachi mitti’ (given a fake score). I knew, even at 10, that I hated being kachi mitti at anything. Kachi mitti wasn’t a real win.
Defeats on an even playing field crushed me even more. Endless times, not getting a certain score in school upset me, or coming second to someone by just four marks made me grudge the person and our friendship. Now, I can look back and clearly see I was the less prepared one, that what I had in passion to excel, I probably lacked in practise on those occasions. But I did not know it then. As a youngster, every failure was a failure to win, a black mark on my life’s report card.
But what I didn’t know as a kid should not have to be something my child also grows up not knowing. In an attempt to get my naturally competitive child to take his wins and losses in stride, I came across the research of an acclaimed neuroscientist, Gilbert Gottlieb, PhD, who says “not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work properly.”
Environment determines whether we have a ‘growth mindset,’ a coin termed by one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, Carol S. Dweck, PhD. Through decades of study, Dweck has determined a growth mindset – the mentality that dedication and hard work (also known as ‘grit,’ identified by another researcher, Angela Lee Duckworth, as the personality trait most predictive of success) can further develop any abilities we might possess or learn. This is in contrast to a ‘fixed mindset’ where one believes their basic qualities are fixed and finite, and that success or smarts comes through spontaneous talent rather than effort.
“Brains and talent are just the starting point…This view (growth mindset) creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities,” says Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.
It is thus that teaching Ochoa resilience will help temper the competitive spirit while prepping him for a life in all its glory. As Dr Prerna Kohli, one of India’s leading psychologists, put it to me, “The key is to keep that curiosity up and thriving to get better and compete with a great skill set accompanied by encouragement and nourishment at every step.”
Much to my parents‘ chagrin, I have asked them to regularly win a game or two against Ochoa. My father, upset at my “cold-heartedness,” has scored a couple of goals in every match since, leaving Ocho to cry his frustration out. I did the same, outdoing him at his favourite animal jigsaw puzzles. He couldn’t fathom how the scales tipped so often and so suddenly.
But slowly, he began to take less time to recover. Now, after a few minutes of sulking, he comes back more determined than ever. With every match played or puzzle made, we don’t just prepare him for winning or losing. We let him embrace failure, learn from it and try again. We let him polish his own skills and better his own records bit by bit. And kachi mitti or not, success or failure, that resilience is the real win.