x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Competitive streak

Parenting Sometimes fathers take games with their sons a little too far.

Pushy parents can create all sorts of problems for their offspring in later life, says Dr Rajeshree Singhania.
Pushy parents can create all sorts of problems for their offspring in later life, says Dr Rajeshree Singhania.

What turns loving, attentive and emotionally-supportive men into uber-competitive parents? A friend of ours seems to have a visceral fear of being beaten in almost every sporting area of his life by his two sons; football, cricket and Nintendo Wii. It's a vicious circle. The sons - aged eight and 11 - are locked in an unresolved struggle with their ferociously competitive father.

What's going on? Their mother laughs at their over-competitive playtime. I laugh (while secretly breathing a sigh of relief that I have a four-year-old daughter who has long since "given up" on her dad for not being able to do plaits). But there is a saying: "Love your children like you won't have them tomorrow. Train them like they won't have you tomorrow". You see the scene played out every weekend on the beach and in the park; dads proving who's boss at cricket or tennis, while supposedly "teaching" their sons how to excel at sport.

Stories abound of famous men competing with their sons; the actor Kirk Douglas is a prime example. When one of his four sons, Michael, invited his dad to see him perform in a school play, the award-winning father was not prepared to give him an easy ride. "You were terrible," Kirk announced afterwards. Michael was able to rise to the bait and ultimately turned out to be one of Hollywood's most respected actors, just like his dad.

The former US President George Bush senior also imposed huge pressure on his four sons to be high achievers. All the games the family played were intensely competitive, and an actual "family league table" was kept of performance in various pursuits. The eldest son, George W Bush, competed the most. When he later set up in the oil business, a friend said "he was focused to prove himself to his dad". He later became president too, of course.

Most boys don't have to live up to becoming president, but that doesn't stop their dads competing with them, and vice versa. Brian Wilson, the lead singer and songwriter of the Beach Boys, was constantly having run-ins with his father Murry, an abusive man who became obsessed with, and hugely jealous of, his son's extraordinary talent. On January 8, 1965, the Beach Boys entered a studio to record what would become their second number one hit, Help Me Rhonda. Well into the session, Murry Wilson arrived to commandeer the session with scat singing and weepy, abusive melodrama. The session tape captured it all - Brian, 22, and Murry fighting over the tape recorder controls at one stage, with Murry wanting to stop the recording and Brian keeping the tape rolling.

It's easy to see why the Beach Boys purchased Murry a fake audio console for their sessions, so he could twiddle knobs to his heart's content without destroying anything. The inferior version that Murry tried to create was not to be, but tellingly, the session tapes contain Murry's immortal line, "Brian, I'm a genius too". He subsequently demanded that the Beach Boys record some of his own songs because, he claimed, "My songs are better than yours."

The competitive dad-son relationship lives on, and it recently emerged that fathers were suffering a spate of injuries after spending too long trying to outdo their children at computer games. Some of the worst muscle and neck pains - dubbed "Wii Strain" - were being picked up by fathers determined to beat their children at virtual boxing and tennis. After this news emerged, the British prime minister Gordon Brown, in what seemed like an attempt to play up his human side, confided to an interviewer that his four-year-old son had thrashed him at Nintendo Wii.

But many fathers don't take defeat from their offspring so lightly. Perhaps it is for this reason that children rate their fathers as among their least popular playmates, according to research among 1,000 youngsters. Too often, dads "played to win", said Play England, formerly the Children's Play Council, which commissioned the survey with the Children's Society, a charity. Children up to 12 would rather play with their friends, their mother or their brothers and sisters, it found. Only one in 16 chose their fathers as their ideal companion. Dads were rated slightly above grandparents.

Dr Rajeshree Singhania, a neuro-developmental paediatrician in Dubai, says, "Competition is part of a natural relationship between father and son - or mother and daughter. "The son or daughter needs to be competitive with his or her parents to establish their own identity. This usually occurs at the teenage period. It is a natural biological process." She adds, "Some degree of high expectations are needed for the child to believe that he or she can do things. If there is no 'competitiveness', it can be seen as the parent having lower expectations for the child. The ability of the father to step back from the 'competition' and understand the son's need to establish his own identity through discord is essential.

"If the father himself has not been able to resolve his issues with his own father, then he is less likely to be understanding towards his son. "Also, fathers with low self-esteem who cannot deal with changing world views and become emotionally anxious, can become more authoritarian and prevent their sons from establishing their own identity. When the father uses his age, authority and verbal ability to put his son down, then the relationship becomes unhealthy."

The competitive dad was epitomised in the BBC comedy The Fast Show where the father torments his long-suffering children, Peter and Toby, with constant challenges they could never live up to. Simon Day, a comedian who created the character Competitive Dad in the show, said he was inspired by a father he saw once at a swimming pool. "These two little kids said, 'do you want to race dad?' and he just tore off and beat them really easily and left them floundering in the pool - drowning while he waited at the other end, really proud of it."

Sue Palmer, an education consultant, teacher and author, believes that this sort of behaviour is part of the "winners and losers" culture we now live in. "No value is being placed on characteristics such as honesty and caring," she says. "It's all about status, money, fame even." Singhania warns that pushy parents can create all sorts of problems for their offspring in later life, ranging from low self-esteem, anxiety and aggression to difficulties forming social relationships. She says, "There is a fine line between 'pushy' and 'encouraging'. Realistic expectations tempered with hopes are important. Besides, achievements and happiness and contentment may not go hand in hand."

One father of three, who didn't want to be named, told me: "I don't think I am overly competitive but you have got to get the balance right. Most children are very bad losers and I say to mine, you could say 'well done' to me occasionally." I could see what he meant, but I couldn't help but detect the fear in his voice - fear that his sons were growing up fast, would soon outsmart him, and he was getting older and slowing down.

I didn't like to tell him that Pablo Picasso's father reportedly gave up painting when he saw what his 13-year-old son could do.