Ask Dr. Mario: Boys’ Competitiveness

My first question from the “Ask Dr. Mario” tab! I put that up so I can field questions from the growing community of listeners of Always Hope! Yet, it is important to clarify that this should not be used for counseling requests since my team reads these forms and I cannot assure confidentiality. If you are in need of counseling, please email me directly at drmario@sacasacounseling.com. However, my availability is limited but I can make referrals when needed.

Alright, here is the question:

“As a father of boys, how do you balance physical play with safety? I have three boys and I’m always trying to find the line between healthy roughhousing and unhealthy aggression. Also, how do you moderate their competitiveness and teach them how to harness it in a healthy way? Also, who was your favorite roommate in college and how much do you owe him for being the one who had to listen to Sonic Flood seventeen thousand times as you learned to play the guitar?” – Matt S.

Yeah, I know who this is from. Thanks, Matt, for the question! Sorry that you had to hear “I Can Sing of Your Love Forever” a bazillion times as I was pretending to be a worship leader in college. God will repay you in heaven!

Your question is a great one. I have four boys and Kristin and I struggle with this, too. It is indeed a balancing act. The first thing to remember is that competitiveness is a good trait to possess. Since our culture has moved towards “everyone gets a medal” we have lost the value of competition. The point of competition is to help us develop confidence. Fair competition teaches us how to be gracious in victory and humble in defeat. Moreover, it turns out that competition is actually healthy for boys’ brain and emotional development. According to this study, boys (age 9-11) who participated in team sports had larger hippocampuses (which governs emotion and memory) and lower depression rates.

Think for a moment about those NatGeo documentaries about baby monkeys or lion cubs. We see them play fighting, horseplaying, climbing on everything, and just causing mischief in general. These young animals do this because it tests their limits and they begin practicing the skills they will need as adults. A monkey needs to learn how to climb and swing fast so they can get away from a predator. A lion needs to learn how to fight if it wants to lead a pride someday. It’s the same thing with our boys. They need confidence and competition is often the vehicle that forces them to bring out their best and develop it. Certainly, competition becomes a problem when it leads to bullying and belittling, but in-and-of-itself, it’s a necessary component to fostering a healthy life.

Back to your question: how to find balance with this in a testosterone-dripping male environment? First, never make them feel bad for winning or excellence. We always welcome our kids’ friends at our house and my oldest had a few of his teenage buddies over. They were ribbing each other as boys do and were teasing the one boy who is at the top of their class. It was good-natured, but I could tell he was feeling sheepish about being smart. So, I told him, “Never apologize for your greatness, if that makes other people feel uncomfortable, that’s their problem.” I’ve told my boys the same lesson through sports and other activities. The world will do enough to tear them down and I don’t want to be any part of it.

Boys are looking to establish a pecking order among their peers, they can quickly size up who’s older, out of their league, or somebody that is close enough to be a threat. In a house full of boys, where they are of different ages and spacing of those years, this can be a challenge. The oldest might feel the need to compete with the one right beneath him, but not the youngest, since he poses no real challenge. As a parent, you want to know how those dynamics are playing out in your home. Who is threatened by who? Who is really competing with who?

Unfortunately, the youngest is usually at a disadvantage in the pecking order of the house, but there is a lesson there for him, too. I recently signed my middle two for a basketball training program and put them in the same grade level. My third grader is currently practicing with sixth graders. I asked him what he will need to do to work out with the older boys and without skipping a beat, he said, “Be tougher!” Heck, yeah, son! That’s a life lesson right there! What we need to do as parents is encourage less competition directly with each other because it’s not fair for the younger ones (unless there is some type of handicap in place to level the playing field). They need competition among peers who are similar in age and talent to properly develop confidence. This is something Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book David and Goliath. (However, even though my middle one is training with older kids, he will not compete on that travel team. I know better.)

Parents need to find the unique strengths of each of our children and put them in environments where they can excel. Sports might not be it, but what about music, art, gardening, robotics, martial arts, etc. Find the things that allow them to shine and put them in places where they can experience success. It might take time to find it, but everybody has a signature strength. This is so crucial because rarely does one person excel at everything, so they need to know that they have confidence in one area as they face the difficulties of another. Math might be really hard, but reading comes easy. They still need to do the math, but at least he can approach with some sense of not being a complete failure because of it.

Once you identify those strengths, we need to show our support as a family. When one has a basketball game, we all go and cheer him on. When one has a big concert performance, we are there to cheer him on, too. There is no favoritism. Let each of your boys know that the whole family is behind them and supporting them in their endeavors. Learning this will help minimize jealousy among each other, because they can trust that when it is their turn to have the spotlight, someone will be there to celebrate them.

This is harder to do when there is an overlap in talent. For example, if they play the same sport. (Can you imagine being Seth Curry? Always living under the shadow of his broth Stephen and his dad Dell. God bless him). Still, they need to find their own way of playing the game, regardless of what his brother is doing. They may want to play a different position, just to find their way. (I’m thinking of Cooper and Peyton Manning, here. But Eli played quarterback that worked out alright for him.) Let them know your sons know that there is enough playing time to go around if they are good enough to earn it.

If you pick up any hint of jealousy, nip it in the bud asap. Pull your son aside, tell him you love him, and that part of being in a family is that we support one another. Sometimes it will be his turn to be in the forefront and sometimes it will be his brothers’ turn. Ask him how he feels when his brothers are not at his events? Or when they are being mean about it? Help him identify with that negative feeling to see that his jealousy would hurt his brothers the same way.

Don’t always be too quick to intervene, you have to let them figure it out, too. If you’ve been clear with them about what your expectations are, then give them a chance to demonstrate it. But if you notice that things are getting out of hand with their competitiveness, talk to them and remind them what your expectations are as parents. Be clear with your rules and the consequences for breaking them.

Assess if they are just getting bored and need a new challenge or project. Boys always need something to do and will turn to fighting as low-hanging fruit. If you are seeing a lot of negativity, it’s a great opportunity to ask if they feel challenged enough by what they are doing in school.

Tenacity and grit are lost virtues. Our boys need them to be the men God is calling them to be. You know your kids better than anyone else, you know when the lines are getting crossed, and what needs to be done to help them develop their confidence. Love them as their father and they’ll carry that love within them regardless if they win or lose.

A book that I would encourage you to read on this topic is Raising Boys by Design, by Dr. Gregory Jantz and Michael Gurian. The later is a foremost expert on male studies who has written much about the growing disparity between boys and girls in our country. He is not a Christian but partnered with Dr. Jantz to articulate his research in a way that is compatible with Christianity. It’s good for parents of boys to help manage our expectations and to know what is normal in their behaviors. Boys are typically louder, more fidgety, more aggressive, and more physical than girls. It’s okay! It’s who they are. (Go figure, having a brain soaking a testosterone ladened brine actually means something!) Dr. Louann Brizendine’s The Male Brain is also a great read to better understand how a boy’s brain develops over the course of his life.

God bless and be good!

To get your question answered on a future blog post or episode of Always Hope, please click here.

Dr. Mario Sacasa

Dr. Mario Sacasa

Associate Director of Faith and Marriage

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