11/21/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Healthy Competition Not So Healthy in Siblings?

Alisa Schindler

I admit it. Our family is a little competitive. OK, a lot competitive. OK, the most competitive! Seriously, our family is more competitive than your family.

Yeah, it's like that. And, since I'm brainwashed by motherhood to take it easy on the small wusses, I mean children, I'm probably the least competitive of the bunch.

All three of my boys, ages 5, 8 and 11, compete on everything from who can stare without blinking the longest to who will get to the car first. They compete on whose drawing is better, who grew more, who likes pizza the most or even who's the rightful owner of the number five.

5 year-old: "My favorite number is 5."

11 year-old: "Hey, that's my number!"

8 year-old: "No it's mine, because David Wright is number five."

5 year-old: "Well, I am 5"

11 year-old: "I liked it before you guys were born!"

Their competitive streak runs deep as well. They argue over who is fastest, strongest, best-liked, smartest and the ever-popular, 'Who can love mommy more?' with all three of them simultaneously trying to squeeze the life out of me.

Competition might just run in their blood. My husband, a.k.a. Coach, leads the charge in all the sports they play, especially baseball. When not at a game or practice, Coach and his boys are on the lawn engaged in some kind of game that usually ends with one or more of my children crying over who won, who lost or who cheated.

Coach's dad, Grandpa H, is no competitive slouch himself. Whether playing my kids; a geriatric, one-eyed, limping widow; or men his own age, his joyous cries of victory after killing a shot echo from paddle ball court to paddle ball court.

And my mom, Grandma S, for all her giggly cute smiles, is a shark in short shorts. No one, not even Charlie Sheen on a crazy streak, takes winning more seriously.

Whether nature or nurture, I find competition healthy and productive for both the winning aspect and the losing. However, when it occurs, as it does regularly, inside of the family, it's another story. The results of competition as sibling rivalry range from frustrating tantrums at the least to confidence crushing at the worst.

Competing with a sibling, especially an older one, is almost a guaranteed set-up for failure and feelings of inadequacy. No matter how much I protest and remind them that they are in completely different developmental ages and stages and each have their unique individual strengths, they have already categorized themselves according to the other.

I can't stand the idea of my middle son thinking he's less than his older brother, simply because he's competing against unfair parameters. My youngest is still young enough not to be effected, but my middle guy constantly beats himself up. No matter what I say, he refuses to believe his own worth. He just shrugs and announces defiantly, "I'm just not as good." It breaks my heart.

It's hard to draw the line between healthy competition and unhealthy sibling rivalry. I want my kids to be competitive, just not with each other. Yet, I don't know how to stop it.

Early on, I inadvertently encouraged it with little contests designed to motivate. You know...
"Who's going to get in bed first?" Or, a favorite, "Who can be quiet longest?" I don't do that anymore, but back then I didn't realize the seeds I was planting. Still, even without the mommy motivator or the daddy influence, I don't know if they'd be much different.

Those articles I read about birth order and sibling rivalry are true. The race starts from the womb and runs their entire lives; although that's the one finish line no one wants to cross first.

A revised version of this essay and others like it can be found on Ice Scream Mama