Sunday 20 October 2019

Dear David Coleman: 'My 10-year-old daughter has to come first, or be the best, at everything'

Children can worry that they will lose other people's approval if they don't meet the standards that they feel the other person has for them
Children can worry that they will lose other people's approval if they don't meet the standards that they feel the other person has for them
David Coleman

David Coleman

Q My 10-year-old daughter has to come first, or be the best, at everything. Recently, she was excited about being part of a school quiz team. We discovered later that she wasn't on the team as another child got on instead. What I found really disconcerting was her ability to lie so blatantly and so seamlessly. She didn't appear at all remorseful when questioned. She said she was cross that she didn't get on the team as she was much better than the girl that did. She is competitive with her sisters too and doesn't enjoy when I praise them. I really don't know where to start with her. I need your advice.

David replies: Competitiveness is a very common trait in both boys and girls. We often expect boys to be competitive, and so, we can be caught a little unawares when girls show equivalent levels of competitiveness.

Perhaps your daughter's competitiveness is a particular challenge for you. If it is, it may be the unconscious block to knowing how to help her. Every child has different qualities and a different temperament. We can click with some of those and we can clash with others. We can feel more comfortable dealing with some of the developmental phases they go through, than others. This might just be a particularly difficult period for you with your daughter.

Within families, the competition between siblings is often to try to get approval, notice, attention or even just time with parents. So, your daughter's competitiveness at home with her sisters, or even in school, is not in the least surprising, nor, necessarily, problematic.

Children also may feel that there are certain things that are expected of them, by friends, family, teachers, sports coaches and so on. They can worry about letting those other people down, or can worry that they will lose other people's approval if they don't meet the standards that they feel the other person has for them.

Your daughter has described almost exactly this scenario with the other child who got picked for the quiz team. Your daughter's desire to be on the team, and her sense of injustice that she didn't get picked, spurred her to create the lie that she was picked. Her lie was, in many ways, a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Her lie may also have been a form of protection for her, such that you will feel proud of her and approve of her.

So, even if she wasn't competitive, she may have lied. I think parents often get distressed by lies, because they see it as some kind of moral failing in their children, and perhaps a poor reflection on their own parenting. At your daughter's age, I don't see it as either. I see it as a rational response, from a child, to a situation where they perceive there'd be some bad outcome if they told the truth.

So, rather than getting too hung up, or concerned, about her lying "so blatantly or so seamlessly", I think you might be better to focus on her self-esteem.

It may be that she only feels she is "good enough" when she is "better" than someone else. She may only be able to value her own skills, abilities and talents, with reference to others.

Helping her to value these things intrinsically, without comparison to others, may be a challenge, but it will pay dividends for her and for you. Drawing her awareness to any comparisons (explicit or implicit) that she makes is the first step. Then, you can acknowledge the positive and the good in what she has done and remind her that she can feel good about that, irrespective of what anyone else is doing, or has achieved.

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