It is very easy to encourage competition in your child. Don’t think you’re biased toward competition? You probably are—I know I am. Along with individualism and independence, these three are the American creed—the water in which we all swim. However, I would like to draw your attention away from it for a brief moment in time. I know, I know, it’s very bright and shiny in competition-land. There is glory, prestige, and WINNING to be had. I get it. But let me take a moment to introduce you to my friend cooperation over here.

While competition may be the “new normal,” cooperation has gotten the human race pretty far.

Think of modern medicine, check out the great pyramids, or just take just take a peek inside an early childhood classroom—none of that happened without coordinated cooperation among many human beings.

The first hurdle in creating more emphasis on cooperation is in knocking competition off its pedestal. We become so hyper-focused on skill-building and fact-acquiring that we easily forget that we are not just bodies, or giant walking brains. We have hearts and souls; we are emotional creatures. Sit with that just for a minute.

Take a breath. Exhale.

Competition without the temperance of cooperation is lonely and isolating. Even within the context of sports, both are needed—that’s called teamwork. Now don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I’m not saying we need to eschew competition entirely. I’m just suggesting you refocus from time to time on cooperation too. Here are three easy ways to highlight it for your child:

  • Promote games and activities that require children to work together. When given the chance, kids love the community-minded fun of charades, obstacle courses, and scavenger hunts. Or check out some non-competitive board games like Ravensburger’s Roads, Rivers, and Rails or Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It.
  • Notice and narrate times when your children are cooperative. So often we find ourselves saying things like “You did it all by yourself!” because we’re delighted by a child’s independence, or “You won!” when we can see they’ve really tried. Just remember to also say something when they ask for help or work with a friend. Interdependence, collaboration, and cooperation should be as highly valued. Try, “You two really worked together on that project—you made quite a team.”
  • Model cooperation in your words and deeds. It’s the good news and the bad news: Your child is always watching what you say and do. And we all know that the “Do as I say” line just doesn’t work. Make sure your child has ample opportunities to see you cooperate and negotiate. If winning is always held up as the highest (or only) goal, kids will learn to shy away from risk-taking, and we’ll set them up for a lifetime of disappointment.

So moms and dads—get out there and cooperate!

Show your kids how to work well with others and model the “try-fail-persevere-succeed” cycle. Reveal the benefits of cooperation and collaboration and take notice when your children engage in these important life skills for themselves.

For children: Yo! Yes? by Chris Rasehka and Swimmy by Leo Lionni.

For grown-ups: Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, by Ellen Galinsky and NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Previously printed in the March/April 2013 issue of Parent & Family

Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and has been featured in The Huffington PostShe brings over 25 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to an nine-year-old who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. She works with families one on one, in groups, and online.