2 Jun 2023

Competitive parents

Once again, it’s school sports day season. All over the country parents will be unleashing their inner demons, screaming encouragement from the side-lines at their hapless children, or demonstrating their own overwhelming urge to compete and triumph whilst sanctimoniously informing their children, “it’s not all about winning, it’s about competing well” etc. Many children must be deeply confused by these mixed messages, and understandably embarrassed by their rogue parents’ behaviour.

On the face of it, school sports’ days are fleeting, frivolous affairs – victories and disasters are soon forgotten or become the subject of amusing anecdotes. But the behaviour that parents display on these occasions can also be highly indicative of an unfortunate tendency to be super-competitive. This drive to succeed can plague many a child’s school years, putting them under intense pressure and making their lives miserable. It can also turn parents into pushy monsters, ever intent on trumpeting their child’s triumphs, seeking out opportunities to boast about their achievements, not so subtly probing other parents at the school gate to establish precisely where their child sits in the pecking order.

While primary school students guilelessly strive for gold stars and approbation, by the time children reach secondary school they often feel they are on a relentless treadmill, striving for respectable grades at GCSE and A-level, scrabbling for university places. They are frequently egged on by ambitious parents, who are intensely focused on these external signs of achievement, and prone to overlook their children’s extra-curricular interests, social life, self-confidence and contentment.

Look out for these signs of competitive parents:

• Demonstrating a burning desire to win

When parents are called upon to compete at school sports days, and unleash their inner Usain Bolt, Ben Stokes or Marcus Rashford, take careful note. Their implacable desire to win at all costs demonstrates a disconcertingly naked competitive spirit and a steadfast refusal to participate in the good-humoured spirit of the event, with its ignominious sack races and rough and tumble tugs of war. Their tendency to be ruthlessly competitive, whatever the situation, is sending a daunting message to their unfortunate children.

• Screaming on the side-lines

Whether it’s the school sports day, or a football or hockey match, an extremely voluble parent on the side-lines who directs loud encouragement and abuse at their child, not the team, is giving the game away. This behaviour will embarrass the child, but it also demonstrates ­– with horrible clarity – the parent’s obsessive desire for their child to excel.

• Refusing to listen to your child

If you find that your child is blatantly uninterested in an activity, be it a sport or learning to play the piano, take note. All parents are used to occasionally cajoling and wheedling their child out of laziness and inertia, but if their child is persistently negative about a certain activity parents really should recognise that making them continue might be more about satisfying their own ambitions rather than the child’s lack of commitment.

• Feeling frustrated with teachers

Parents who perpetually feel that teachers or coaches are failing their children, or not pushing them hard enough to succeed, may well be guilty of over-competitiveness. Teachers are professionals who understand each child’s capabilities and limitations, and know how to pace their learning, based on objectivity and experience. Parents should stop haranguing them or trying to impose their own educational agenda on them and try listening carefully to what they have to say.

• Buttonholing other parents
One of the defining characteristics of a competitive parent is the tendency to interrogate other parents about their own children’s developmental milestones. Information gleaned is this way is then, unforgivably, used to boast about their children, or to make smug remarks about how they’re “advanced” or “academic”.

• Living vicariously

It is hard to understand precisely what makes parents hyper-competitive, but it is frequently the case that they are using their children to channel their own unattained dreams and ambitions. This refusal to recognise a child’s unique individuality will inevitably lead to frustration and unhappiness – allowing children to find and pursue their own passions and interests will ensure that they feel happy and fulfilled.

These signs of competitive parenting may seem obvious, but people who display this tendency all too often justify their behaviour with remarks like “I only want what is best for my child”. They fail to see the anxiety and frustration they cause and are so blinkered by their own aspirations and ambitions that they do not understand the stress they foist on children, teachers and other parents.

Take a long, hard look at yourself and scrutinise your own behaviour on school sports’ day. Accept that your hysterical ‘encouragement’ of your child might be the beginning of a slippery slope and try to rein in any of the tell-tale signs of pushy behaviour. We argue that sports day will teach our children to be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. Perhaps we should reserve this advice for their parents?


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