My colleague's 6-year-old son has just started elementary school. He is a bright boy, however, very competitive, so much so that he started resisting going to school, even attending any activities, social and active. He says he is scared he will not be the best of the class, get the highest grades or win that particular race. The family is trying not to be aggressive but even the psychologist and the principal of the school couldn't talk the boy into attending the classes.

Any suggestions of how to fix this problem? Could this have anything to do with jealousy?

  • 10
    Be careful to praise for hard work & effort, and immediately cease all praise for results. Praising kids for results harms them in this exact way! Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 16:08
  • 7
    @ReadyToLearn: And praising for misguided effort that doesn't produce good results harms them in a different way, so it's not really as simple as you make it out to be. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 16:57
  • 3
    @MasonWheeler Something about your attitude there sits wrong with me, even though your words seem on the surface reasonable. Kids can always be encouraged to improve their focus, care, attention, and so on—those are easy in my experience with my own child. But working hard is a trait that is much harder to encourage later once the child has gotten used to focusing on "being excellent". Please read the book "Nurture Shock" for some science backing up what I'm saying. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 17:30
  • 4
    Not to put words into Mason's mouth, but you can praise for effort to a certain point, but effort for effort's sake isn't praiseworthy. You need some focus on results. I don't get paid for my 'effort' at work - my boss demands results. I'd say to carefully praise both.
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 19:28
  • 2
    "He is a bright boy" saying this causes the exact reaction you are seeing. Prasing his smarts reduce his will to take on more challenge and fear of not being smart enough for it.
    – the_lotus
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 12:04

6 Answers 6

  • Experiencing failure at something (or even success but not being the best) and finding that it's OK, and even something can help him find ways to improve and be better in the future, would help. Rock climbing, with appropriate safety measures, can teach a lot here (as can some other sports).
  • Reframing not even trying as failure might help too. If he doesn't even run the race, he's lost the race, and he knows he can do better than not even trying.
  • Focusing on the goal of "do your best" rather than "be the best" might also help produce evaluations of success when he met that goal but somebody else did better at the task.
  • Also try to build empathy for encouraging him to let other people win sometimes (i.e. that's not only OK but encouraged), because of how they would feel if they had his perspective.
  • Deliss's suggestion is good: Point out that even professional athletes, including any that he might regard as heroes, still lose games much of the time, but they still go out there and try to do their best to play well. Statistically, his favorite team (if in a sport where two teams play in games that each have one winner) probably loses about half the time.
  • Tie feedback to the effort that was given and how well that corresponds to his best effort, instead of tying the feedback to the outcome, at least in some cases.
  • When giving explanations for a success, focus the explanation on something that is within his control, like the effort given instead of on some innate quality ('you must be so smart') because if the results are interpreted as something innate and close to self-worth he won't want to try for fear of the results reflecting poorly and damaging that self-worth. If the results are more often interpreted to reflect level of effort and how well he's trying his best, that motivates a different choice about how much to try, and even to try some things he doesn't think he's likely to succeed at (some of them, he will succeed at anyway, and surprise himself).
  • 2
    I'd note that "reframing not even trying as failure" and "do your best" are qualitatively very different, so I would recommend the OP pay attention to the difference in tone. The former traps the child into having to try, while the latter encourages them to try. I wouldn't remove either from my inventory of techniques if I were this child's parents, but I find the differences substantial enough to note in a comment.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 23:25

If he's afraid of not being the best at everything, I'd teach him about specialization. Point out how silly it would be if we had doctors building roads and bridges, or firemen teaching classes at school, or chefs playing baseball on TV! (Wait for him to laugh at the mental image.) People have things that they're good at, and things that they're not good at; everyone does! And it's important to know what you're good at and what you're not good at, and the only way to really find out is to go ahead and try things. (Talk about some point where you tried something and were surprised to discover you had a talent for it.)

Also mention how even people who are the best don't always get everything right, and what makes them the best is how they keep trying and actively learn from it. Show him a light bulb, and tell him about how when Thomas Edison, one of the smartest men ever, was trying to invent the first light bulb, he tried 3000 different things and none of them worked! When another scientist said it was a shame he had failed so many times, he said, "I haven't failed; I've learned 3000 ways that don't work!" And when he learned what didn't work, it was able to teach him how to find things that do work, until he finally came up with one that did, and now everyone remembers Thomas Edison for inventing light bulbs, not for failing 3000 times along the way.

  • 5
    Of course, everyone remembers Edison for that, but I would hesitate to use him as a historical role model. He essentially trapped dozens of geniuses in labs for very, very long periods of time and stole their work as his own. I just wish there was an analogous inventor who deserved a place in the moral story.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 18:05
  • 2
    @corsiKa Use Tesla! Nothing could possibly go wrong if you give your child Tesla as a role model! Nothing at all! =)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 23:26
  • @CortAmmon Yeah, if you're particularly lucky, they won't even deal with that pesky "sex" stuff, and you'll save yourself plenty of embarassing moments! :P
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 8:22
  • @corsiKa Brunel?
    – Basic
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 17:17

This could very well be related to the work of Carol Dweck. While her work is fascinating and nuanced, the TL;DR is that children praised for intelligence restrict themselves to endeavors the think are likely to succeed, shying away from any activities they might be less than a stellar success at (citing the same fears as your colleague's son). Children praised for effort tend to try harder things and actually achieve more. The premise is that intelligence is an innate quality: the child thinks "if I fail then maybe I'm not so smart after all".

Effort on the other hand is a choice, the locus of control is back with the child himself/herself. I'm aware of this research and its implications, and I still catch myself telling my daughter she's smart. Its so very easy to do because we think as parents that we're reaffirming our child's self-esteem, when we're really teaching risk avoidance.


I think you have to make him understand that he can't be the best everywhere and win everything. But it's OK, look his parents aren't the best and they are happy. They will love him even if he is not the best.

Does he have a favourite sports team? Try to make him understand that sometimes his team lose, but it's OK.

He can't do nothing for the rest of his life just because he might not be the best.


My wife and I have nine children, and one of them has a little bit of that symptom. He is 10 years old, and is a good competitive distance runner - 19:47 in the 5K on the road, 5:42 mile on the track, district champion in the 1500 meters in his age group. He is extremely competitive and is constantly trying to run his siblings into the ground in training runs that are supposed to be easy.

What I found is that such a competitive drive is both a strength and a weakness, and with proper approach the strengths can be magnified while the weaknesses mitigated. I have seen my son through his competitiveness find a gear at the end of a race that I did not think was there, and that makes all of the headaches of trying to tell to him to stop creating a race out of an easy run every 100 meters of it over the course of 4 miles worth it.

What I do with my children is look at what they appear to be capable of and then give them a reasonable challenge. Find the most desired reasonable reward that they would like, and make a deal with them that they are getting it once they have met the challenge. In the process they will fail a number of times before they succeed. Each time they fail, analyze with them why, and come up with a plan to do better next time.

Our goals are usually running times. For a competitive child this redirects the focus from beating an opponent who may or may not be good, to beating the clock which is constant and predictable. He learns that if he practices sound training and racing principles he will have good results. Competitors are his friends, not his foes - they help him run a faster time.

You should not expect perfection with regard to toning the excessive competitive drive down, but with a solid consistent effort and a lot of patience you should be able to make it manageable.


As a cub scout leader, I have seen similar behaviours in some kids.

I would suggest you try to re-acquaint your kid with playing (games) adding an emphasis on developing his sense of humour.

It seems to me that he needs to learn to laugh at himself and it will be easier to get him there by having him laugh at other silly stuff.

Games can also provide a good framework to demonstrate that by example, goofing off yourself and having a laugh to show him that it's not the end of the world.

Non-competitive games where, for instance, players have to mime to get their team to guess a word are nice way to showcase that you can 'not take yourself too seriously'.

Good luck

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .