Friday, August 13, 2010

What to do about competitiveness?

Wow, it is mid-August. I remember summers when my children were little...summers were a time of much family togetherness. I would greet the summer jubilantly in June, as the school year drew to a close, with all sorts of activities planned and the promise of fun times. But, by August, my energy had waned, the children were getting on my and each other's nerves, and I was desperately seeking the return of a regular schedule. I suspect many young families are feeling this same tension now. A friend, with two small children "underfoot," recently asked me, how do you handle competitiveness, both competition for your attention and that negative exchange between two children, the "I am faster, better, bigger...."

Preschool teachers hear the same brazen words in the classroom. Sometimes it occurs between children that don't play much at all with each other, but most often it happens with children that are very close friends. It is perfectly natural behavior - but one that grates on our adult nerves. I have a variety of responses to this, depending on my mood and/or the situation:

1. IGNORE - To some extent, take the carping with a grain of salt - it pays to be able to ignore some level of the interaction. I remember one parenting class where we were encouraged to wear an ipod/earphones as we moved throughout the house, daring to ignore a large part of the banter. In my classroom, I work hard to make sure there are several engaging, exploratory activities for the children that will whet their appetite and allow them to interact with one another more or less independently. I am often a "fly on the wall" to their conversations, listening but not interrupting. Honestly, we don't have to tamp down on our children's every word, movement. Take it in stride, if you can. Remind yourself that the children are learning to play together and it takes time to become skilled at this.

2. REDIRECT - When the level of discourse begins to get out of hand, my favorite technique is to interrupt calmly and model a new way to do the activity or to suggest another activity - for one or both of the children. It I have the time and patience, I will often suggest an activity for me to do with both of the children, because it is great for children to have an adult happily playing alongside them. (And, if I feel one child is being particularly put upon, I often suggest an activity that happens to be one of this child's favorite things to do - his/her favorite story, for example). I believe this models how children can enjoy being together without struggling over who is better, faster, bigger. You simply changed the scene.

3. REFRAME - When it is brazen, "Mommy, I can do art better than Jane can't I?", it is a good idea to respond in a positive, unfrustrated voice, complimenting the specific achievement "You are proud of painting an elephant, aren't you?!" Often the child is simply feeling proud and wants to be acknowledged for it. Help your child learn to shine without denigrating others. It is good teaching to also add a positive word about the other child (if she/he is listening) - "And look - Jane likes to use blue in her painting...."

4. LIMIT - At some point, it can go too far. Perhaps you see it in one child's eyes - or hear it in their acrimonious voices. Time to be very clear: "In this classroom (in this family), we are kind to one another. See how hurt Jane is? You need to use kind words with one another. Are you able to use kind words?" and, if it continues, "I see this is hard for you to be together right now. I want you to play in the xyz area now." I recently heard from one mom a parallel idea that one could use at home (my children are teenagers/young adults, so, unfortunately, I can't really use this at my house!). When her preschoolers/young elementary children were caught up in fussing with one another, she would hand both children a dust rag and point them in the right direction, exclaiming "Time to clean the baseboards and give yourself some thinking time!" I really like that no nonsense approach. It is kind, but clear - we have limits on how we speak to one another.

Perhaps the best resources on how to deal with these hurtful, competitive interactions between children - and how and when to "draw the line" - are the numerous books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, particularly: Siblings Without Rivalry. I particularly like Chapter 3 "The Perils of Comparisons," which warns how adults can fuel issues between children (often innocently, without malice of forethought) simply by comparing one child to the other. It is a really easy read that could help you find a new voice, a better response in dealing with competitiveness between children.

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