Until about age four most children are pretty much oblivious to competition. They care little about being the best, the winner or the leader. Their lives revolve around themselves and the grownups who love them. And then suddenly they begin to notice the world out there. As their bodies and minds become stronger and more agile they revel in their growing strength, savvy and independence. Once they recognize what a great thing it is to be able to control your life (and other people, too) they naturally become obsessed with power-wanting as much of it as they can get. In fact, they want all of it. There are few creatures on earth more grandiose than a typical four-year-old. He both takes for granted that he is at the center of the universe, and deeply fears that this may not be the case. The result is that he may crumble and/or get extremely argumentative when fate intervenes with the announcement that somebody else won at Candyland, or big brother gets to climb into the car first today. The natural tendency when your child starts acting this way is to lecture him or her: don’t cheat, don’t be a sore loser, wait your turn. It’s certainly reasonable to offer up these pearls of wisdom-just don’t expect your child to accept them, yet. A four-year-old who only wants to play if he is declared the winner before the game even starts will not necessarily be devoid of scruples as an adult-or even as a six-year-old.
As necessary as it is to teach a young child good values, you also need to accept his overriding longing to believe in his own super powers. When his yearning to be number one infringes on other’s rights (when, for example, he cheats against a friend while playing Chutes and Ladders) you set him straight about the rules-and even suggest the game not commence if you know he’s not yet capable of being a gracious loser (or winner). But in the comfort of his own home, you can relax the rules. As difficult as it is for a young child to lose against a friend, it may be excruciating for him to lose against a parent. The tantrum that ensues if Mom gets to King Candy first is fueled by a deep sense of betrayal. So, either put the game away or let him win. If he wants to race you up the stairs or down the block, go as slowly as it takes to make sure he is victorious. Likewise, if he tells you he’s the best, fastest, smartest, tallest, and most adorable kid in his class/ day-care center or street , don’t venture a conflicting opinon. Just listen goodnaturedly. To point out his flaws or suggest he get a more realistic perspective of his place in the pecking order will just anger or shatter him.
At the same time, of course, you should clue him in to the rules of the real world. Let him know it’s okay to peek at and even reshuffle the cards when he’s playing against you (at four. As he gets older you don’t need to allow this). But if he gets creative with the rules when playing against a friend it’s called cheating and isn’t permitted. You should also point out that his friends long to be number one just as much as he does, so everyone needs to get a chance to be first.
Don’t worry that if you indulge him at home he’ll never learn sportsmanship. He’ll have plenty of opportunity in the years ahead to prove you wrong. But by indulging him now you’ll give him something else that will benefit him for a lifetime. Most of us have within us a little voice inside that pipes up when we’re feeling down or defeated, and insists that somehow we can prevail. This faith in ourselves is often what helps us to accomplish our full potential. That voice is the vestige of our four-year-old self. So if you want your child’s future to be triumphant, don’t silence that voice now. Let him crow.