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Healthy competition vs. Sibling rivalry

I admit it. Our family is a little competitive. Okay, a lot competitive. Okay, the most competitive! Seriously, our family is more competitive than your family.

And, since I’m brainwashed by motherhood to take it easy on the small wusses, I mean children, I’m probably the least competitive of the bunch.

All three of my boys, ages 5, 8 and 11, compete on everything from who can stare without blinking the longest to who will get to the car first. They compete on whose drawing is better, who grew more, who likes pizza the most or even who’s the rightful owner of the number five.

5 year-old – My favorite number is 5.

11 year-old – Hey, that’s my number!

8 year-old – No it’s mine, because David Wright is number five.

5 year-old – Well, I am five!

11 year-old – I liked it before you guys were born!

Their competitive streak runs deeper as well. They argue over who is the most likable, smartest, or, the ever popular, who can love mommy more, with all three of them simultaneously trying to squeeze the life out of me.

Competition might just run in their blood. My husband, aka Coach, aka Mr. Baseball, leads the charge in all the sports they play, especially baseball. When not at a game or practice, Coach and his boys are on the lawn engaged in some kind of game that usually ends with one or more of my children crying over who won or who lost.

Coach’s dad, Grandpa H, is no competitive slouch himself. Whether playing my kids, a geriatric, one-eyed, limping widow or men his own age, his joyous cries of victory, after killing a shot, echo from mountain top to mountain top.

And my mom, Grandma S, for all her giggly cute smiles, is a shark in short shorts. No one, not even Charlie Sheen on a crazy streak, takes winning more seriously.

Whether nature or nurture, I find competition healthy and productive, for both the winning aspect and the losing. However, when it occurs, as it does regularly, inside of the family, it’s another story.  The results of competition as sibling rivalry range from frustrating tantrums at the least to confidence crushing at the worst.

Competing with a sibling, especially one older is almost a guaranteed set up for failure and feelings of inadequacy. No matter how much I protest and remind them that they are in completely different developmental ages and stages, they have already categorized themselves according to the other.

I can’t stand the idea of my middle son thinking he’s less than his older brother, simply because he’s competing against unfair parameters. My youngest is still young enough not to be affected, but my middle guy constantly beats himself up. No matter what I say, he refuses to believe his own worth.  He just shrugs and says almost defiantly, “I’m just not as good.”  It breaks my heart.

It’s hard to draw the line between healthy competition and unhealthy sibling rivalry. I want my kids to be competitive, just not with each other. Yet, I don’t know how to stop it.

Early on, I even inadvertently encouraged it with little contests designed to motivate.  You know… “Who’s going to get in bed first?” Or, a favorite, “Who can be quiet longest?” I don’t do that anymore, but back then I didn’t realize the seeds I was planting. Still, even without the mommy motivator or the daddy influence, I don’t know if they’d be much different.

It’s like they’re in a race with each other from birth… my oldest far ahead, my middle struggling to keep up and my youngest, not really caring as much, and just kind of attaching himself to the oldest in all his glory. Sigh.

It seems all I can do is be aware of it, discourage it, and do my best to build each of my children up on their individual strengths.

Those articles I read about birth order and sibling rivalry are true. The race starts right from the womb, with the finish line being the only one that no one wants to cross first.

boys 5



About Ice Scream Mama

Mama to 3 boys, wife to Mr. Baseball and daughter of a sad man. I have a double scoop every day.

40 responses »

  1. This was great. I think you are right about birth order and the “rights” that you are born into based on this. I know being the youngest of 4 girls and feeling competitive about everything but trying to act like I didn’t care because being the youngest entitles u to certain privileges. You are a great writer and I loved the #5 photo!!!

  2. I so related to this Alisa!!! I think there is something about being one of three in a same sex household. My sisters and I were, and even now that we are in our 40’s, are still, competitive.

    It is different in my house, and as much as I would love to attribute it to my superior (ha!) parenting skills, I really think it has more to do with having a boy, girl, boy order. I find my son and daughter don’t compete much at all and the two boys each have a special place in the family so there isn’t as much charge as who is going to be first. There is something helpful about having a competitive family though. I found my sisters and I were ready for the world in some ways that our less competitive friend were not, we also knew that not everybody could be first and learned how to develop our own talents and skills.

    Your boys are adorable by the way and I love the fight over the number 5!! Great!! Thanks for a fun post!!

    • it’s true. it comes with its benefits but i do feel like my middle boy gets the shaft. it’s hardest on him. i think competition is always there,but it’s true, same sex sibs, it’s the most pronounced. we do what we can, but it’s in their nature and their order.. i don’t know how much can really be done, and i feel like it is such a contributing factor in their personality and emotional development. arggg!!

  3. Oh yes. We have all of this and it’s my fault.

  4. competition is normal – there will come a point where middle son will be better than older son and shove it in his face. It’s inevitable. It happened to me and my sister (I’m the middle child) so it will happen. But for now, just be the supportive mom you are and love them. That’s all you can do.

  5. Hey, 5 is MY lucky number!

  6. As I was reading this I was thinking that maybe it has something to do with you having three boys. I grew up with two sisters and we weren’t competitive at all – and aren’t now as adults – but I have friends who grew up with only brothers who are super competitive. An interesting research topic if one is so inclined…

    • i agree. birth order is fascinating.. i do think it’s unusual having 2 sisters for you guys not to have been competitive. i think when your same gender it’s natural.. having said that, there are no rules, right? 🙂

  7. Oh great! Just when I thought I’d be clear of sibling rivalry. But since I’m having another boy, I’m certain it’s only a matter of time before my two sons start competing with each other.

    Let’s just hope they argue over who LOVES mommy more!

  8. I think you nailed it in the penultimate paragraph. My daughter-the-middle definitely suffers but she has distinct strengths the other two don’t have and I take trouble to remind the others of that!

  9. Love the description of your mom as a shark in her short shorts! I’ve been in a covert, unwinnable competition with my older sister for much of my life. It’s been painful, but it’s part of the package of me. Not sure what parents can do to combat sibling rivalry, but talking about it and not pretending it doesn’t exist have to be positive steps! Way to go!

    • she is a shark in short shorts, no matter how much giggling she does. i kind of think fighting the inevitable is a losing battle. doing my best, but cushioning confidence is no easy task.

  10. I’m always interested to get inside the head of a competitive person, as I am the most non-competitive being on the planet! I never played team sports and don’t care if everyone finishes first, ha, ha! I can see that my daughter is similar to me, so my husband is counting on my son to be the big sports enthusiast. Your writing is so entertaining, as usual 🙂

    • i used to be more competitive but honestly, i can’t compete with my husband or kids on that level, so i’ve bowed out of the race. my job is to make sure the least amount of feelings get hurt. it’s good until it’s bad. 😉 thank you!

  11. sibling stuff is so weird …even though because of the age differences I grew up in an entirely different household than my oldest three sibs, I think the competition is actually worse there. I loved the #5 dialogue…

    • thanks. and yeah, it is, but it’s so much a part of who we are.

      • Sorry…I think I messed up on my first comment and this follow up so if its a repeat just delete it…(freaking new android is a piece of…) anyhow…I didn’t mean to infer things were worse at your house! UGH! I meant that competition was strangely worse with the three sibs I didn’t grow up with than with the three that I did grow up with. Sorry about that …you musta been like…”what a snot!” HA! Still love the 5s!

      • not at all. even though i didn’t get that you grew up with 3 different sibs, i didn’t take it anyway bad at all. but now it’s more interesting… on why one set was more competitive than the other. still, my house is worse than your house! – you can’t beat me! haha!

  12. “I liked it before you were born” and the “shark in short shorts” totally cracked me up!

  13. I think I avoid this mostly b/c my two boys are 7 years apart. So they never really competed in that way. Maybe if I’d had one in between it would be different.

  14. fun post! Your final line reminded me of a “jody-ism” I posted a few months ago. If you get a chance, take a peak – I think you’ll enjoy it:

  15. Yeah competition is always a balancing act. It’s tough to not take it personally sometimes.

    On the other hand, it’s best they get used to it from an early age. Our world, fairly or unfairly, revolves around competition – so it’s always good to be prepared!

  16. Ahhhh, sibling rivalry. I think you’re right though: they would have picked up some degree of competitiveness regardless of how you parented them. In between competitive sports teams, grades, and the cut throat world that is the recess play ground kids get it from all angles. Love the picture of the boys in “5” shirts!

  17. elleroywashere

    Wow! Right down to the same number on the jerseys! Haha! My kids had 32 and 23! And here’s how ridiculously competitive I am and even with my kids: my son and I do the staring without blinking thing. We did it tonight at dinner. I won. Of course. 😉

  18. Pingback: Mom on the sidelines | Icescreammama

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