Taming the Need to Be Number One

Q: My 16-year-old son is very smart and loves to learn new things. However, he is extremely competitive, and this makes him very difficult to live with. He gets upset when he loses a game to a sibling; he cheats when he thinks it is necessary, and denies that he is cheating. If he does not win a raffle in school, or anything at a Chinese auction, he feels that life is unfair. His rebbi has mentioned that he has a hard time letting other students answer questions when he thinks he knows the answer; in fact, he calls out in class to be sure he answers first.

I’m already concerned about how he will respond if he does not get into his school of choice next year. He is generally not an unhappy child, perhaps because he is successful in so many areas — he has friends and does well academically. How can we tame his competitive nature?

A: The best-adjusted, happiest human beings are those who accept that they cannot be the best in everything.

Speak to your son. Tell him that it is your goal to help mold happy children and teach them appropriate ways to cope with life. That is perhaps one of the most important gifts a parent can give his or her child.

Mention your concern with his apparent unhappiness when he sees that he cannot be number one across the board. In game-playing, although skill is a major factor, the element of chance is involved, as well. If the other person decides to make a move in chess or checkers, the move is made. One’s skill can only help so much.

Raffle results are also clearly not up to him; if Hashem wants a certain person to win, that is to whom the prize will go.

Even though he is currently doing well in his schoolwork, he might someday encounter subjects that are difficult for him. He needs to realize that no one can excel in everything. The best example to give is Moshe Rabbeinu; even the greatest of all men was not perfect!

Being perfect (and totally competent in all areas) is not a realistic expectation for any human being. Seeking perfection can only lead to disappointment. Hashem made the world in such a way that everyone lacks something. This often gives people the motivation to daven for the things that are needed in their lives. It is not an issue of fairness; if the state of galus felt totally comfortable, no one would yearn for Moshiach!

If your son has truly convinced himself that he was not cheating but playing with a “different set of rules,” you can have him write down his “different set of rules” for future reference. He can then ask his siblings if they want to play with those alternative rules.

Help your son understand a new definition of the concept of “winning.” If he lets another boy answer the teacher, and this student feels proud and good about himself, both your son and his classmate have “won.” The idea of “winning” — in fact, vanquishing — the yetzer hara can be stressed at any age in a person’s life.

Discuss the possibility of his not getting into the school he wants to attend next year, and his possible reaction. Help him analyze his desire to go to this school: Is it just to show others that he can be accepted there? Is comparing himself to others the only way he can rate himself?

A measure of introspection will be helpful to allow your son to be more at ease with himself and others. Inculcate the concept of “samei’ach b’chelko.” Finally, show him examples in which people’s competitive natures led to problematic results.