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How to Increase Your Child’s Competitive Fire

In our earlier posts, we wrote about how competition benefits our children and how genetics can affect our children’s disposition towards competition. In this post, we’re going to look at how we can increase our children’s competitive fire.

3 Things Parents can do to Increase a Child’s Competitive Fire

According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Top Dog, building competitive fire boils down to these three things:

  1. Group Play
  2. Roughhousing
  3. Teaching them never to quit

Competitive Fire: Group Play

“At some point, groups teach us how to compete, and then – win or lose – how to move on.” – Top Dog

How being in a group encourages competition:

  • A group forms from a common interest – it may be a game or a competitive activity. This provides the collective identity for the group giving all members within the group a unified sense of purpose.
  • The members of the group are rarely true equals. Every member has different experiences, abilities and resources. They each bring something unique to the table which gives the group its greatest strength.
  • A group accepts that everyone is different and that there will be hierarchy within it. Conflict is accepted because it encourages everyone to improve. At the end of the day, they all fall back to the larger purpose of the group which keeps them unified.
  • Groups provides the security for individual members to take risks and make mistakes because they know they will still belong to the group even if they mess up.

According to Top Dog, boys naturally gravitate towards being a part of a group while girls tend to form pairs. By understanding the rules of a pair-based relationship, we can gain an insight into why girls are more reluctant to compete unless the circumstances are favourable:

  • Pair-based relationships are formed on equal footing with neither partner being better than the other.
  • While groups celebrate their differences, pairs looks for what they have in common and suppress their differences. Groups only require one factor to link them, whereas pairs require more areas of common interests for linking.
  • Competition within the pair threatens the relationship and is therefore discouraged.

Getting Girls into Groups

If girls don’t naturally play in groups, then how else can we encourage this so that they, too, get the opportunity to build their competitive fire? Top Dog doesn’t really get into this part so I’m deviating off on a tangent here. They do say that even in groups, girls still want to operate within the rules of a pair-based relationship and are reluctant to get competitive. Girls want better odds for winning before they are willing to compete.

So if we can create the right scenarios where girls get enough experience working within a group, we might be able to nurture their competitive fire. These are some scenarios that might create that environment:

  • team sports
  • group projects
  • girl guides

Competitive Fire: Roughhousing

Building Competitive Fire - Roughhousing

Rough play is good for the brain. It stimulates neuron growth within the cortex amygdala and cerebellum regions, areas responsible for emotional memory, language and logic. How well kids roughhouse is actually linked to how well they do in their early years of school – up to grade three. Intense physical play helps them develop not just cognitive intelligence, but emotional intelligence. While pinning a squirming pal down on the floor, they learn to read body language, facial expressions and other social cues, like when their friend has had enough. – Anthony DeBenedet, physician.

Roughhousing does more than build competitive fire. According to DeBenedet and Cohen, roughhousing is important for a child’s brain development and can affect how well they perform in school. Roughhousing is equally important for both boys and girls.

Successful Roughhousing

The most successful roughhousing requires parental involvement. Roughhousing with parents encourages exploratory behaviours and risk taking within the confines of a secure relationship. While roughhousing with other children can get out of hand, parents can sense how much to push and when to pull back by observing the feedback from the child. That said, it is important for the parent to lead the play and establish boundaries. Without a “strong-dominant” parent, roughhousing can also backfire.

When we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back. We teach them self-control, fairness and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn’t everything. We show them how much can be accomplished by cooperation, and how to constructively channel competitive energy so that it doesn’t take over. – DeBenedet and Cohen

Roughhousing can be equally successful with either parent – father or mother – although the statistics show that it is usually the father who is more comfortable with roughhousing. Roughhousing peaks at about age 3 to 4 and continues up until the age of 10.

Ideas for Roughhousing Play

These are some ideas from The Inspired Treehouse:

  • airplane
  • cirque du soleil
  • squishes
  • water skier
  • sumo wrestlers
  • the mop
  • grab it
  • steamroller
  • sleeping whale

There are also loads more ideas in The Art of Roughhousing.

For Older Kids

While I do remember roughhousing with the kids, I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it nearly as much as I should have. What happens if your child is older than 10? Is it too late for roughhousing? If not, then what is the older child’s equivalent for roughhouse play? I wish I had an answer for this. If I had to make a guess at it, however, I would consider a contact sport, like martial arts. Why martial arts? Because it is a little like roughhousing with rules.

Competitive Fire: Teach Them Not to Quit

This is basically The Hard Thing Rule – encouraging your child to pick up an activity that is hard and to commit to it for at least two years. But more than that, I feel parents play a very important role in “The Hard Thing Rule” – that is in not allowing your child to quit (too early).

As adults, even we struggle with our commitments – seeing them through to the end when all we want to do is quit. But as an adult with experience and a better developed prefrontal cortex, we are able to assess the effects of quitting versus persevering. We know that if we quit now, we’re going to regret it and so we push on.

A child, especially a young one, can’t see that far. All they can see is the immediate gratification of quitting now. They may not even regret the decision until years later, when they’re older and able to look back with greater maturity and understanding. Our role as the parent, therefore, is not to never let them quit but to increase the barriers to quitting and help them get past that difficult stage. If they still choose to quit after, that’s a different story.

As parents, we don’t just ask them not to quit: we order them. We equate quitting with moral transgression, a taboo. We try to make it clear that the shame of quitting is far worse than the shame of merely losing. We insist they can’t quit on a play, can’t quit until the final whistle, can’t quit on their commitments. They have to learn to give extra effort at the very moment they lack the desire to give it. They need to learn to circumvent the desire to give in. – Top Dog


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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