Why preschoolers are obsessed with being first (and how to deal with it)

Kids can't always be first. Here's how to teach them to take turns.

There aren’t enough bicycles to go around at three-year-old Ben’s daycare. And when Ben isn’t able to get to one first, his teachers say he goes into full-on meltdown mode.

That’s no surprise to his dad, Scott Watson, who has seen Ben become upset at home, too, when he races with his older sister, Zoë, and she speeds ahead. “It usually ends with Ben in tears, because his legs are too short to keep up,” says Watson.

The desire to be first—and the freak-out that ensues—is perfectly developmentally appropriate for three- to five-year-olds, says Beth Stockton, a professor at the School of Early Childhood at George Brown College in Toronto, and a registered early childhood educator. For many preschoolers, a combination of three factors contributes to the behaviour.

For one thing, kids this age are full of initiative. “They’re trying to be doers,” says Stockton. “They’re all of a sudden competent in ways they weren’t before.”

They’re also egocentric, meaning they literally can’t imagine putting anyone else before themselves. “[Doing so] is a cognitive skill, and it’s also a social skill,” says Stockton. “Learning to take the perspective of someone else means you have to subjugate your own needs and desires to work in a group.” That’s something all parents know preschoolers aren’t great at.

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Finally, they can’t quite wrap their heads around how time works. “Children don’t form an abstract understanding of time until they’re six or seven,” says Stockton. That means waiting even a couple of minutes for a turn can feel like an eternity for your mini-me.

For some preschoolers, however, wanting to be first may be rooted in wanting to be better than others. “They’re constantly comparing themselves to others, and how we respond to that impacts their self-concept, which is still developing as well,” says Tracia Finlay-Watson, who teaches physical education instruction at the University of Toronto. “Being first makes them feel special, and they get recognition for that. We all want to feel that way.”

Since he was a preschooler, Felix, now 6, has been extremely competitive. “He would butt in front of people; he’d push people out of the way; he’d run. And if he wasn’t first, he would cry and get very upset,” says his mom, Christina LaFlamme, who lives in Fredericton and has a three-year-old daughter as well. Board games and sports have also been problematic for Felix. “We got him out of soccer because he had such difficulty working in a team.”

While you should be careful not to squelch your child’s initiative and enthusiasm, there are times when you’ll want to temper his me-first drive—in part for your sanity, but also to teach your child more palatable social skills. Try these tips.

Give him the opportunity to practise
Taking turns is a learned social skill; your preschooler won’t get it right away, says Stockton. “They need practice learning how to negotiate in a group and not taking just their own perspective.” Playing games, doing things in groups and taking turns in daily activities, like choosing which book to read, are all good exercises.

Compliment them
Give specific praise to encourage your kid’s cognitive and social skill development. Stockton suggests trying something like this: “This time you’ll go first, next time Mom will go first. Now it’s your turn; now it’s my turn. Hey, you did a good job waiting for your turn!”

Don’t over-praise.
Our enthusiasm may be part of the problem. If you offer up a high five when your kid reaches the finish line after elbowing another to get there, you’re reinforcing that competitiveness, says Finlay-Watson.

Give them tools to help them deal
Books or fidget toys can offer distraction while waiting for a turn, and a song can help them track time (when the song is over, it’s their turn).

Make up a routine
“Children at this age respond really well to routine and consistency,” says Finlay-Watson. For example, let your preschooler be first in the morning and let her brother be first after school.

Check yourself
Children model their behaviour after their parents’, so watch for times when you’re showing impatience. The next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store, instead of muttering about how irritating it is to have to wait, Stockton suggests pointing out, “Isn’t it nice that we have this time together while we’re waiting?” It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re frustrated, but it’s worth the effort.

Sore losers
Hyper-competitive kids who always need to be first can find losing tough to handle. Click here to find useful tips on how to help your kid go from a grump to a good sport.

Read more:
How to cope with toddler possessiveness
5 tips for teaching your toddler how to share

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