Competition in Teens Today

Picture of Adeeba Jafri

Adeeba Jafri

Adeeba is the author of several books including The Baby Garden, A Zoom with a View and Show Yourself.

True story

My daughter was 7 years old when she tested for her fifth TKD belt. My husband and I usually took turns attending the tests so one of us could stay behind with the boys. That day, him and my daughter went to the dojo. When they came home, he was very quiet and didn’t say much. My daughter, meanwhile, went to her room and closed the door, something she had never done before. I was baffled.

My best friend was there. She called shortly after and told me the whole story. My daughter had gotten through all parts of the test: the form, the punches and the kicks. The last part of the test involves a specialized kick to break through a thin wooden board. I don’t know what happened, but she faltered. She screamed “YA!” as customary of a TKD kick and hit down. The board didn’t break.

She tried again.

And again.

And again.

The audience watched as each kick became less and less powerful. Each outburst of “YA,” just before hitting the board, became lower and lower until her voice started to crack. She couldn’t break the board. My friend was there and she said that everyone, parents, students, and judges had tears in their eyes. Finally, by either the strength of the instructor or some weakness in the board, she struck the board and it broke. Everyone stood up and cheered, but they all knew. She had failed the test.

I was angry. Bitter. Upset. Not with her. With myself. You see, I am a pretty competitive person and I knew my daughter wasn’t cut out for competitive sports. Still, I put her, and my three boys into years (and years) of a process that I firmly believed in. It wasn’t the sport that I was attached to. It was the idea that one should work hard, beyond what they think they’re capable of, to develop skills they need to succeed. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the competition is. Whether it’s school, or sports, activities, or Qur’an, if there is a competition, you need to

(1) believe that you can win it and

(2) develop the skills to win it.

Some parents might disagree with me.

Shouldn’t we instill confidence in our children? Yes.

Shouldn’t our kids try things even if they aren’t good at them? Yes.

Shouldn’t all the kids be considered winners for just trying? No

When my kids were younger, I came across this book by Amy Chua called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, It’s a fantastic read about a Chinese mom who uses her own aspirations and beliefs about success and applies it to the way she parents her two daughters. The book has some truly funny conversations as well as some jaw-dropping moments where I thought, “No way, a mom would never do that.”

There’s one point in the book (among many) that I strongly agree with: We need to equip our kids with skills and knowledge that they are so good at, no one can take away from them. They stand apart. And standing apart is what gets you into college. Speaking as a mom of two kids that are in college, I can decidedly say that competition is a quality that we have to nurture in our children before they hit their teens. Here are some of my parenting strategies. Keep in mind, they don’t work on every kid. But you won’t know if you don’t try them.

I tell my kids to always be ahead of the curriculum. It doesn’t matter what class it is. When you walk into class, you should already know the content. As kids get older, you can’t always expect to have a good teacher. Therefore, know the material and use what the teacher says as additional information.

I definitely had a proud mommy moment (though I would never admit it) when my son told me that his teacher held up his AP bio notebook and used it as an example to others on how to take good notes. Invest in highlighters and colored pencils and have your kids rewrite their notes in a thorough, well-written manner WITH additional information from the textbook. Don’t fall for the “but this is all the teacher said we needed to know.”

I have three boys who are all gamers and therefore have some variation of ADD, so this strategy works for me! Whether it’s flute practice, SAT prep, writing a massive research paper or memorizing a surah, I make the kids put all distractions aside, set a timer and work in a concentrated burst. Using a time-centered, rather than task-centered, strategy forces my kids to put all their brain cells to work in one focused spurt.

Kids hate to practice. How many times have I heard, “I already finished the math homework,” to which I respond, “But are you good at it?” No answer.

Skill-building is a great path to instilling that competitive streak in your kid. Find out about local camps or tutors that develop specific skills and then coax, cajole, or bribe your kid into them.

It’s not just about your kid. Here are two ways that you can instill a competitive streak in yourself.

Become friends with (positively) competitive moms. These are the moms who tell you about college visits. Who cheer for your kids at games. Who send you Math Olympiad problems with a note: “Make your kid do these!” Who don’t hesitate from sharing their kids’ study strategies and tutoring contact numbers. They’re not out to undermine your kid. They’re determined to see YOUR kid success just as much as theirs.

If your child is a B-student, please don’t make them apply to Harvard. Be competitive in what is available to you. If your kid is great at robotics, train them for Robotics competitions. Register them for Math Olympiads if they’re a whiz at math (not the ones at school because God forbid their friends see them). If they didn’t make the basketball team, enroll them in a basketball club outside of school. Just keep it real and don’t expect them to play for the NBA after graduation.

Did I stress you out? Good.

Contact me at my email address or send me a DM on Instagram and tell me what’s on your mind.