I bought my niece her first board game. It was a version of Chutes and Ladders. She loved rolling the dice and counting the squares. Whoosh, a ladder! Up you go!
I was so excited watching her advance until she finally landed on the last square. I gave her a high five and cheered, “You won!” Then I removed her game player and proceeded to play on to see which cousin would come in second.
My niece burst into tears and said, “Why do they call it winning when I have to stop playing first?”
Wasn’t she a wise child? She understood that it was playing the game that was the rewarding part, not the winning or losing. Children are not born competitive, but they are keen observers and quickly learn what is important and how to gain significance.
In North American families, children are socialized to compete and win. If you study children’s games from around the world, you’ll see that collective cultures have games that are more about how to work together, while games from individualistic cultures pit child against child to see who will top the other.
My niece broke into tears at the thought of not being able to continue playing. Other children when faced with losing might cry or throw themselves on the floor screaming, kicking the bench, throwing their hockey stick down or flipping the game board to catapult all the pieces in the air.
It’s embarrassing for parents who know it’s not very sporting, but it’s also hard to watch our little charges take loss with such emotional devastation. So what’s a parent to do?
Here are eight ways to not raise a sore loser.
1) Don’t always let them win
When playing games with your child, allow them to experience both winning and losing. Pick games of chance as well as skill.
If children always wins, they come to expect they should always win rather than anticipating that either outcome is possible. “You win some, you lose some,” as we say.
2) Focus on improvement not perfection
Of course it’s exciting to cheer when someone gets a goal or shoots a basket, but too often the child misinterprets that recognition to mean that only points and winning are important. Be sure to pay as much (or more) attention to the process of play. Notice how their concentration, focus, hard work and training are paying off. For example: “Your footwork with the soccer ball is really coming along.” Or, “You’re really looking at all options before making your chess move.”
3) Empathize and correct their mistaken belief
The emotional blow that comes from losing can be a child’s disappointment in themselves, his or her “stinky thinking” or mistaken belief that he or she should always be first and best. In essence, some kids place excessive standards on themselves for their performance and feel their ego or personal worth is tied to their accomplishments. Losing is mistakenly seen as personal failure and reduces their feelings of worthiness.
We can help soften the blow by telling our kids we see how important it is for them to do well, but no person is perfect and they are no less lovable or likable. Explain to the child that if he or she always wins, others will be less interested in playing. The excitement of seeing who will win is part of the fun of the game, too.
Be sure to be a good loser yourself, not just in sports and games, but in life. Demonstrate that we sometimes don’t come out on top or get the best seats in the house. Don’t bemoan your situation; roll with the punches. Practice saying, “You’re right. I am wrong” or “I didn’t get the table I wanted in the restaurant, but we can make due with this one.”
5) Put emphasis on fun
Be sure you notice how much fun everyone has when people play using good sporting qualities. “Aren’t we having a good time?” “I haven’t laughed so hard in ages.” “You are such good company when we play this way.”
6) Refuse to play with poor sports
Poor behaviour should have consequences. If your children cheat or lie about what they rolled on the dice, or if a ball was out of play simply because they want to get ahead and win, refuse to play with them. Explain that it is not fun to play when people are not playing by the rules or playing with good character. Pack up and leave the game for today. Let them know you’ll try playing with them next time.
7) Keep it on the down low
If they are storming around, don’t correct their behaviour publicly in front of other parents or teammates. Take them aside and quietly explain their behaviour is not okay and that you’ll discuss this matter later at home when they are calm again. Do your best to remove yourself and others from being in the audience to their displays of upset.
8) Co-operative games
Make competitive games less competitive by using cumulative scoring. If you play Scrabble and add everyone’s points together, your goal is to top the last highest accumulated family score. The same works for bowling. There are co-operative board games. Ask your local toy store for recommendations.
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