I’ve been competitive as long as I can remember.
I just honestly thought everyone around me was always competing with me. I assumed everyone was side-eyeing me, trying to get the edge. In first grade I was one of a handful of kids who started writing our names on every upcoming page in our workbook so we could get our math done a second earlier and be the first to slam it in the basket.
And that set the tone for my life. I thought life was a competition and I did not want to be a loser.
Now my four-year-old is showing signs of that same competitive spirit. Just yesterday he told me a half-dozen times during story hour at the library “I was the first/fastest kid. Did you see me mom?” Oh boy.
Competition is fuel for me. I can make pretty much anything into a competition. I set the timer and clean my house to race against the clock. I set ambitious reading goals for the year and use that to nudge me towards reading when I could be zoning out on the internet. But I’ve also come to fear my competitive spirit–the way it drives me towards achievement but also towards burnout. The way it turns me into a fighter. Pretty much everyone who has ever played a game with me has a story about me getting “unreasonably invested” in the outcome of the game. And now I’m raising four kids, and at least two of them have become pretty fixated on winning already. How do I raise kids who have my flaws? How do I help them handle their worst inclinations when I can barely handle mine?
In some ways, I’m uniquely suited to help them recognize and wrestle with these besetting sins. In other ways, I’m the least qualified person on the planet to help anyone figure out how to manage their temper or their fierce competitive spirit.
I’m still clinging to a motto I declared a few years ago: “Repentance is more powerful than perfection.” I’m not raising kids who are ever going to be perfect. I’m raising kids who are going to need to own up to their mistakes over and over and over. I can’t really model perfection but I can model progress. I can model persistence. I can model the cycle of sorrow and joy.
I’ve been trying to run away from my competitive spirit for the last decade or so, afraid of the Hulk-like strength it gave me. Competitiveness also keeps me on a knife’s edge between obnoxious pride and ugly self-pity. In other words: If I win, I’m insufferable. If I lose, I’m miserable.
My homemade prescription for curing competitiveness includes losing graciously, being willing to try things I won’t be good at, and cheering for other people to win. All of these are hard for me but I’m trying. Not only for myself, but for my kids, so that we might know what to do with our dangerous superpower.
I’m learning to embrace the incredible motivation and strength I get from being competitive. It makes me want to work hard and gives me great ambition. I live for check marks and gold stars. I work hard for little rewards, even if I give myself those rewards. I like racing against a clock. So why not use these little tricks to get things done? I don’t want to teach my kids to compete against one another (that has backfired before, believe me) but I do think they can acknowledge how good it feels to win even if you’re only competing against the clock or racing for your own reward.
Seeing my own tendencies and temptations in the behavior of my children has motivated me to get my act together. Watching their little tempers imitate and therefore multiply my anger makes me realize how destructive my frustration can be. Trying to teach them how to be less competitive when I know how hard it is to control a competitive spirit makes me admit how fierce I can be.
I thought at first that my job was to model good behavior for them. I still think that is part of my job, but the other part of my job is to acknowledge my own sin and model for them the humility it takes to walk back and apologize. But I also get to show them the joy on the other side of repentance. I’m trying to model for my kids how to acknowledge when competitiveness transforms me: confess, repent, ask forgiveness, repeat. I’m teaching them the way back from the brink because I know some day they are all going to need it.