No matter what your age or level of maturity, everyone loves to win, explains clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Sumari van Rooyen. ‘Competition among children is normal and healthy, teaching valuable skills that can help them succeed in life. While it’s natural as a parent to focus on helping your child to be a winner, it’s just as important to teach them how to lose, because being gracious in defeat builds self-esteem and helps them develop empathy and humility,’ she says.
Fighting for first
Ages four to six
Preschoolers will clearly show you just how much they hate losing, says Sumari. ‘Your four- to six-year-old will break down in sobs, scream in frustration or storm off in anger. However, before you give him time-out for his tantrum, remember that he’s just beginning to understand what it really means to win or lose. Preschoolers have what psychologists call “magical thinking”. They believe that if they play to win, they will win, which makes it hard for them to understand losing. And because they’re only just starting to develop empathy, it’s even harder for them to comprehend why others will feel sad about their success.’
‘“Me first!” “I’m the tallest.” “My pink is the pinkest.” “I’m the fastest.” “I can scream the loudest.” “My teddy’s better than yours…” Competitiveness is very natural at this age and preschoolers will often do anything to win,’ continues Sumari.
Which is why this is the time to start teaching them some basic skills:
- Taking turns is a wonderful way to teach kids how to lose gracefully. You can say: ‘Yesterday it was your turn to choose the TV programme. Today it’s your brother’s.’
- Focus on how your child competed, rather than the end result. Say: ‘You really tried your best at running fast.’
- Always link their behaviour to others’ reactions and feelings. Say: ‘How do you think it made your brother feel when you pushed him? How would you feel if someone pushed you to get to the line first? What do you think you can do differently next time?’
Ages six to eight
While preschoolers are just learning how to manage big emotions and, more specifically, losing, they’re also learning to regulate their feelings, developing a sense of morality and becoming more adept at controlling their behaviour, explains educational psychologist Stacey Cohen. ‘This means that games consisting of rules should be easier for them to adhere to and they should be able to start playing fair. However, if this doesn’t come easily, there may be underlying issues such as poor self-esteem or insecurity. And since peer relationships are becoming an important feature, they may feel that losing means not being accepted or good enough.’
Being a sore loser at this age may involve cheating or quitting, she adds.
Cheating may take the form of suddenly changing the rules if your child feels he’s going to lose, peeking at his opponent’s cards or asking for clues, but not giving them in return. This is frustrating for other players and children are often rejected by their peers when they don’t play fairly.
Stacey suggests the following:
- Try to identify the underlying motive for their cheating. Are they anxious, insecure or desperate to feel successful? If they’re struggling with self-esteem, try saying: ‘I see you peeking at my UNO cards. It seems very important to you to win today. But no matter who wins or loses, you’re playing really well!’
- Explain how their cheating makes you feel. This can be helpful for their peer relationships. Say: ‘That doesn’t seem to be part of the rules. I can see you’ve changed them so that you can win. It makes me feel sad. How would you feel if I did that to you?’
- Go over the rules before you start. You can add that the rules don’t change during the game and explain what will happen if they cheat. Offer them a choice: ‘In this game, we know the rules are X, Y and Z. These rules can’t change for anybody while we’re playing. If you cheat, that means you’re making the game end.’
- Always acknowledge their ‘honest’ achievements: ‘Wow, you did that well! You’re getting so good at this – and the best part is that you did it on your own, without cheating. You should feel really proud!’
Children who struggle to lose may be overcome by emotions and choose to withdraw by quitting or walking away, says Stacey. ‘This is because losing is intolerable and a feeling they can’t manage, so they’ll evade it by fleeing the scene. It’s important to coach your child through this. Snakes and Ladders is a good game for this.’
- If your child lands on the head of one of the largest snakes, which makes them appear to be coming last, try saying: ‘Oh, no, that’s so unlucky! It’s scary to feel that you’re losing, but anything can happen, so you’ve got to keep going.’
- If they do keep going and end up winning, say: ‘Wow! It looked like you were going to lose. I could see you wanted to give up, but you didn’t – and alook what happened. You won! Aren’t you proud of yourself for staying in the game?’
- If they keep going and lose, say: ‘Oh, no! You didn’t win that time, but what’s important is that you kept going. I’m so proud of you for carrying on!”
- Always acknowledge when they’re a good winner or loser: ‘I noticed that you didn’t make me feel bad for losing. That makes me enjoy playing with you.’ Or: ‘I know it doesn’t feel nice to lose, but you didn’t get upset about it, which shows me just how big you’re becoming. You should be proud of yourself! I can see that you’d make a very good friend for anyone at school!’
Win some, lose some – graciously
The best thing you can do for your child is to teach them that games and competitions have to be fun for everyone and that winning and losing are neither permanent, nor good, nor bad, says Sumari. She offers the following tips:
- Improve yourself. Start by teaching your child that competing is about being your best possible self and that there’s always room to get even better. Suggest challenges such as: ‘How fast can you run to the tree and back? Let’s try to recite the alphabet faster than yesterday.’
- Work together. Teach your child some co-operative games where the whole family or all the friends/siblings work together to achieve the same goal, such as how high they can build a Lego tower or how fast they can finish a jigsaw puzzle together. In this way, getting to the end is a group effort and they all experience the outcome together.
- Winning and losing. Learning how to bounce back after a defeat or accept a win with grace and consideration is an essential life skill. Starting with easy games and then moving on to complex ones will help your child experience competition in a positive way and understand that the way they show up, rather than winning or losing, is what counts.
- Watch your own attitude. Kids model their parents. If you swear and mutter because Claudia up the road won that raffle, rather than you, or if you’re a mom who becomes obsessed with whether your daughter won the school talent competition, or gets enraged and vengeful if your son didn’t make the school’s first tennis team, they’ll feel that you’re riding on their shoulders each time they compete at anything – and that losing means disgracing not only themselves, but you too. Be a gracious loser yourself and your child will learn from you.
More about the experts:
Sumari van Rooyen is a registered Clinical Psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa and Psychotherapist in private practice. Learn more about Sumari van Rooyen here.
Stacey Cohen is a Educational Psychologist who is also trained to assess cognitive, academic and emotional functioning. She has a special interest in learning and development, and how this affects an individual’s overall function. Learn more about Stacey Cohen here.
Lynne is a freelance journalist and content writer who has worked in the
magazine industry for many years. A regular contributor to Living & Loving,
her main passions are people and health. She holds the Pfizer Mental Health
Journalism award for 2012/2013 and specializes in lifestyle and wellness
topics for both the print and digital worlds.