My child always wants to be first – the competitive child and Montessori
Does your child always want to be first? Do they always want to win? I see this behaviour a little bit in some younger children but more around children from 5 years and up.
Let’s have a look what we can do in our homes when we see competitive behaviour.
Montessori and the lack of competition
Montessori is known for its non-competitive peer learning environment. In the classroom, even from the youngest ages, we nurture working together as a community. Things that encourage less competition and more collaborations are:
- the idea that everyone belongs and contributes – it is our role as guide in the classroom (or the home) to help each child feel valued and that they contribute. (Recommended reading: Children who are not yet peaceful, by Donna Bryant Goertz)
- children love learning not in order to pass tests and be better than others, but to better understand the world around them and solve problems. When there are no marks to compare each other, there doesn’t have to be a top student and a bottom student. We are helping each child where they are at. Whether they find a subject easy or difficult, as their guide we are looking to continue to challenge them and to help them build on what they know so they can scaffold the skills to learn a further step/difficulty/skill. In the book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard writes, “Grades and evaluation seem to reduce prosocial behaviour in the classroom by fostering a competitive atmosphere. … [In] Montessori classrooms competition is minimised by the lack of grades.”
- the Montessori guide observes to see if a child has mastered a skill/s rather than using tests
- in the Absorbent Mind, Dr Montessori talks about there only being one of each material in the classroom. She explains that this removes confusion, allows each child to work for as long as they need to, the materials will be returned to the shelf ready for another student, and the children learn to respect the materials. In addition, children learn to wait their turn and respect other’s work too.
- It’s not a rush. Children are not rewarded for finishing first. Yet children are surprisingly self-motivated to continue to want to master things for themselves. I was speaking to Heidi Phillipart-Alcock, a 0-3 trainer, and even though not competitive she talked about that human need to work, to self-correct, to repeat and to perfect, what Dr Montessori and Mario Montessori called “human tendencies.” Watch a baby who keeps batting at a ball until they connect their hand again with the ball to make the bell ring, a toddler who is happy to read the same book again and again, a preschooler who fills up every vase in the classroom with water and places flowers carefully in each, etc.
How can we help children at home
Some children are wired to be more competitive. And sometimes we create the competition often unknowingly. So here are some ideas to consider if you have a child showing competitive behaviour.
1. Are we encouraging competition in our home? Do we ask, “Who can get ready first?” “Who can be my best helper?” “Who ate all their dinner?”
Instead could we encourage collaboration, “Let’s see how quickly we can get ready for school,” and then those who are ready first can help the last ones if they need help.
“I need help. Is anyone available?” as children’s ability and willingness to help differs depending on what they are doing in that moment and even at different ages.
“You listened to your bodies and stopped when you were full.” or “It sounds like you’d like more? Are you still hungry?” applying the principles of “equal is not equal” and “treat each child uniquely” from Siblings without rivalry
2. When they compare themselves to others, can we focus instead on the individual? They often try to bring up a sibling or another child to compare to and we can bring it back to listen to what they are saying they need, and remove the focus from the other child.
When they whinge or moan, “It’s not fair. They got two and I only got one,” instead of us lecturing or moralising, for example when we say, “Things don’t always go our way,” instead we can acknowledge how they feel, “It sounds like you really wanted more. I can see why it must have been frustrating that there weren’t enough for everyone to get two. Yeah, I hear you.” Notice I don’t mention the other sibling/child; I stay focused on them and their feelings. Then once they’ve vented then we can move into problem solving mode, “what could you do next time?” etc
When they boast, “I’m the fastest/strongest” we can respond without building up competition and focus on the individual, “It sounds like you love running fast/feeling strong!”
3. Are we clear on how we share/take turns in our home? If we are not clear, then the children cannot be clear what is expected. In our house, all of our toys belonged to everyone (except for a special bunny/bear each for bedtime). If someone had just received a new gift then they usually wanted to keep it as their special thing for a couple of weeks, but then it again became something anyone could use. In our house, we also had the same agreement as in a Montessori classroom that they would share by taking turns. Whoever was playing with something could play with it for as long as they would like. And, to be honest, around the age of 3, they began playing more and more together. Which leads to the next question…
4. Do you have collaborative activities available? From collaborative board games to more open-ended toys like wooden blocks, magnatiles, farm animals, lego. Our homes are not Montessori classrooms and I believe there is space for both Montessori-style activities and open-ended activities. There are opportunities for social development from both – in Montessori activities they learn to wait for their turn, to get deep focus, to concentrate and to build mastery; they learn to respect another’s work by walking around where they are working, how to interrupt if needed, and to return something to its place so it’s available for someone else. And with open-ended activities we learn to accept others ideas, find ways to solve problems together, build collaboratively, and work on a shared goal.
One of our favourite collaborative board game was Orchard by Haba, and for older children Pandemic, The Mind, Hanabi, and Space Team. You can also find other collaborative board games at Montessori Services here too.
5. Can we focus on the process, not the end result? I talk a lot on the podcast about intrinsic motivation (wanting to do something because we are internally motivated to do it) rather than extrinsic motivation (such as a reward, bribe, praise, threat or punishment). I also wrote a blog post about it too.
To allow intrinsic motivation to express itself and build what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset, one thing we can do is to focus on encouraging the process, not just the end product. For example:
- “I saw you brought another chair to the table for your friend.”
- “Look at you both working to move that log together.”
This can help a child who wants to be best to focus on all the steps along the way, not just the outcome. It could be in relationship with another child, or also when we notice them pracitising and repeating something they are working to master.
6. Does your family have an abundant mindset? In my view, in a Montessori classroom there is an abundant mindset – every child can achieve their best, not at the expense of someone else. There is enough time to learn, there is enough space for each child, and every child is valued. Compare that to a lack mindset where we might often express not having enough time for everything or everyone; if someone else wins, then another person loses; and some children are considered more worthy than others.
So consider the views expressed in your family – do our children absorb an abundant mindset or one of lack?
7. Is there a new family member? Having a new baby in the home can bring out a need to be the best in a child because they have a need to be seen. They may feel uncertain of their place, we might have less time to be with them, and life in their home has changed. It can be a big change for an older sibling.