Although there is an age difference of several years, my youngest is outpacing the oldest in bicycling, gymnastics, climbing on the play structures, etc. My older son is starting to back off trying things when the youngest succeeds. How can I encourage him to enjoy the “doing” and not feel bad about being slower at these things. He is more proficient in other areas, but it doesn’t seem to compensate as far as his feelings go.


Dear Worried,

It sounds as if your boys are competing with each other. You didn’t mention their ages, so I’ll do the best I can. Developmentally children usually discover competitiveness at around age six. When we see it younger than that it is often attributable to inherent competition in the child himself or in the family as unit. Start off by exploring any ways you may have set them up to compete without realizing what you were doing. Do you see who is first to get somewhere or finish something? Do you play games where the winner is defined? Are the boys compared by other family members? Are mom and dad’s parenting styles so different that the boys have learned to compete for your attention? Do the parents compete with each other? Children learn to interact based on how their parent interact with each other. Take some time to really look at how you function and relate as a family to determine if there could be an underlayment of competition. If you find some, have a family meeting and apologize for your mistakes and look for ways together that you can change things. Christmas might offer an opportunity to give noncompetitive board games to enjoy together.

Another thing to keep in mind is that often times an oldest child would rather give up on something than risk being unsuccessful. You might simply have a case of your eldest manifesting oldest characteristics: perfectionistic, critical of self and others, reluctant risk takers and conservative. It gets trickier because oldest children often take on the misinterpretation that they need to be first or best in order to be important.

So what to do? Definitely root out competitiveness in the family and name it when you see it WITH HUMOR! Make it fun to discover when any of you lapse into it and create a signal, either a non-verbal hand signal or one fun word that can be said to indicate “Oops! We did it again.” Be sure to acknowledge each person’s different strengths by offering compliments for each individual at the beginning of your family meetings or even before a meal.

Lastly let your oldest have his feelings around being slower than his brother. Help him to move through the stages of denial, negotiation, anger, sadness and finally acceptance so that he can fully become himself.