6 Tips for teaching kids how to lose gracefully

Everyone likes to win, but for every winner there is a loser. Sometimes there are several.

As much as parents and teachers would like to cushion young children from the disappointment of losing, it is an inescapable part of life.  How can children learn to deal with emotional pain if they are never allowed to feel it?

Learning to respond positively in both victory and defeat is an important life lesson. Tantrums, tears and sulking may be understandable, if not acceptable, responses to losing for a four year old. But if an older child cannot learn to lose with dignity, they will lose more than the game. How do we go about teaching our kids to lose gracefully?

Teaching kids to lose gracefully

It’s a competitive world

We may sometimes wish life was less competitive. It can be exhausting to be always chasing a promotion, a sports trophy or even a parking spot. Like it or not though, it’s the world we live in.

Have you watched any reality television shows lately? Whether it’s cooking, dancing, singing, losing weight, dating, renovating a house, quiz shows, racing around the world or surviving on an island – winning is the ultimate goal.

Some contestants are none too gracious and losing is traumatic for others. In real life, competition is constant. We want our children to enjoy the challenges of life, rather than be stressed and frustrated because they don’t win every time. Therefore, they must learn the attitudes and behaviours needed to be able to win and lose with equal grace.

Everyone’s a winner

There recent trend is to take an ‘everyone’s a winner’ approach. Parents and teachers try to shield young children from the disappointment of losing and a possible loss of confidence. A perfect example of this appeared in a recent episode of Bluey, titled ‘Pass the Parcel’, which sparked debate Australia-wide. In the episode, the character Lucky’s dad Pat is outraged when he finds out that there’s a present in every layer and he needs to time the music to stop on every child once.

When it’s time for his kid’s party, he decides to play it the ‘proper way’ with one big present in the middle.

“We’re raising a nation of squibs,” Pat says.

Getting the kids to accept ‘Lucky’s dad’s rules’ isn’t easy at first. There are tears and tantrums. Pat even tries to soothe the crying kids by giving them cash… But with every birthday that passes, the kids and parents become more accepting of the sole prize being the one in the middle.

As Chilli says to Bingo, who repeatedly misses out on winning, but comes to enjoy her friends’ successes, “I think you’re getting quite good at losing.”

Dr Anne Drabble, senior lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of the Sunshine Coast, acknowledges the motivation behind the ‘every child is a winner’ approach.

“Every child should feel special and have their uniqueness valued. Competition should have some focus on ‘having a go’, ‘participation’ and enjoyment, in addition to winning and not winning.”

Dr Drabble says trick is to balance keeping self-esteem and motivation intact while developing an understanding that you can’t win every time.

“The ‘everyone’s a winner’ approach may shield young children from the disappointment of losing, but only in the short term,” she says. “A concern is that this approach has an impact on providing children with opportunities to develop resilience. That is, to develop a capacity to keep things in perspective and bounce back when they face challenges.”

Teaching kids to lose gracefully

Helping kids bounce back

Losing becomes an issue for some children at around three to four years of age. They may cry, kick, punch, bite or throw the bat because they don’t have the words to express how they feel. They are overwhelmed by the notion of failure. What can parents do when children are frequently upset or aggressive about losing?

“Supporting children and encouraging a realistic sense of self-worth will help children manage the ‘not winning’ scenario,” Dr Drabble says. “We need to be kind and understanding because children at this age are learning to manage numerous challenges.”

She acknowledges this is not as easy as it sounds, especially when it is your child throwing an almighty tantrum at a birthday party because they didn’t win the prize!

“However, what parents and carers say and do around the age of three to four years will support the child to manage these challenges and help them to develop resilient capabilities for the future.”

It’s okay not to win

How a child deals with the disappointment of losing depends partly on personality and partly on the strategies they have learned to cope with disappointment. A child who doesn’t know how to lose may feel a failure and generalise the sense of failure to other situations.

The ability to bounce back (resilience) is crucial to surviving in a highly competitive world. You can’t do much to change a child’s basic personality, but you can do a lot to help them learn to deal with life’s ‘curve balls’.

Teaching kids to lose gracefully

How can parents help?

Shift the focus

“Not winning will not undermine a child’s self-confidence if they feel special and supported. Communication with the child is essential,” Dr Drabble says.

“Reassuring comments that make the child feel special, acknowledging their participation in the game and listening carefully to the child about how they feel and providing strategies to shift the focus from ‘winning’ to ‘doing their best’ and ‘enjoying participation’ can be very helpful.”

Beware of a child linking their self-worth or your approval to winning. Stress accomplishment, not winning. Praise the effort, not the result.

Alternatives you could ask your child:

  • Instead of ‘Did you win?’ as ‘Did you have fun?’
  • Consider ‘What did you learn?’ instead of ‘Did you get an A?’

Even when they win ask ‘What did you do to help your team win?’ or ‘Why do you think you got an A this time?’ Associate the good result with effort.

Stress the value of just enjoying the game, the friendship of team mates and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. If you are playing family games, let the children know you are playing to have an enjoyable time together. You play because you like spending time with them, not to win.

“I have found games where luck and chance determine success is particularly useful for children in keeping the ‘not winning’ scenario in perspective,” Dr Drabble says. “Chance and luck games using dice, cards and technology allow children to participate, enjoy and deflect ‘not winning’ away from having an impact on their self-confidence and self-worth.”

If it is a game of skill make sure the child has a chance of winning by choosing an age-appropriate game. Another useful tip is to play some practice or demonstration games, talking through rules and strategies as you go. Playing in pairs can be more fun and less stressful for the loser.

Model gracious winning and losing

Set a good example by being a good sport when competing yourself, when watching your child play, or watching sport on television. Shouting abuse at the referee (televised match or live) or gloating about a win is not demonstrating how to be a good sport.

Apart from sport, children observe how parents handle the day-to-day stresses and frustrations of life. Do you make excuses for your difficulties, blame others, criticise your child’s teachers frequently or lose it when things go wrong? If you can express your frustration calmly, then look for solutions, your children will follow your lead. Saying aloud, “I’m going to be late because I can’t find the car keys. Next time I’ll hang them on the key rack” expresses your frustration, but is also a positive response. The same applies when dealing with your children’s frustrations – stay calm and discuss solutions.

Discuss what sportsmanship means

“Parents can also support children to manage not winning by pointing out and discussing examples of good sportsmanship,” Dr Drabble says. “Teams who congratulate each other on the field, winners who shake the hands of non-winners and comments by sports stars on doing their best and acknowledging they were beaten by a better player on the day, are wonderful examples for children to experience and adopt.”

Speak to your child about good sportsmanship and the value of treating others as you would like to be treated. Teach them to congratulate opponents. Comment on examples of good and bad sportsmanship when watching sport with your child. Praise opposing players if they deserve it. Point out that not everyone can be a top level player, but everyone gets better with regular practice.

Negative dismissals like “You’re acting like a baby” or “It’s not a big deal” are not helpful. Empathise with the disappointment of not winning (“It’s hard to lose by one goal. Better luck next time”). Acknowledge your child’s feelings and share your own experience of disappointment. Let your child know we all suffer disappointment sometimes, but we deal with it and move on.

It’s equally important to teach your children to be gracious winners. There’s nothing like a gloating sibling to really fire up a child who is already feeling the sting of losing.

Use positive, purposeful praise

Be specific and genuine in your praise. “Your defence around the goal circle was much tighter today” carries more weight than “Good job”.

Comment on the improvements you see in their skills and strategies and especially about how they behaved towards opponents, team mates, the umpire and coach. If they behaved well they did their part in making it fun for all.

Offer support

If your child reacts badly to a loss, or feels that he has failed at something, wait until the time is right and offer support. Ask what they think they are doing well and what they would like to improve. Offer to practice a skill or help them in other ways if they think it will help. Helping your child to set realistic goals, breaking the skills needed into manageable chunks, can help them see that mastery takes time and they will improve with practice.

Talk openly about why a team might have lost. Perhaps the skill level of the opposing team was higher, players may have been injured, maybe your child’s team didn’t play their best, or it was simply bad luck that the ball hit the post. Whatever the reason, there’s always next time.

Keeping competition in perspective

Help your child to see the bigger picture. Competition has value in that it makes us try harder to achieve but there are many ways to be a winner. Alfie Kohn’s book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, argues that cooperation beats competition every time. The Huffington Post says that Kohn’s data “clearly shows that people who collaborate are more productive, learn more, enjoy playing more, and have better character and interpersonal relationships”.

It seems like a sound argument for playing team sports or engaging in other collaborative activities. A child who is busy encouraging and supporting team mates is sure to have more fun than the child whose only focus is to win at any cost. Whether you win or lose, or whether you compete at all, there are certainly benefits in working together towards a common goal.

Knowing your child’s temperament can help you identify the most effective ways to teach them how to lose with dignity. According to Joel Fish and Susan Magee, who wrote 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent, you can use the following:

  • For an emotional child, focus on teaching them how to calm down and lighten up. Help them notice how their body reacts when they are upset (clenched muscles, shallow breathing) and together, brainstorm ways to respond (counting to 10, deep breaths, a brisk walk)
  • For a conscientious child, aim to help them differentiate between striving for perfection and perfectionism. Talk about setting positive goals for how to improve, instead of allowing too much focus on the negative
  • For an aggressive child, make consequences clear. Show them where the line is, and what the response will be if they cross it (then follow up if rules are broken)
  • For a social child, use peer pressure to your advantage. Stress the value of cooperating with her teammates, and remind them that the team can help them stay positive if they are feeling down.

What makes a child a winner?

Dr Drabble sees the challenges of competition as an opportunity for parents to develop resilience in their children.

“Life is full of everyday challenges. We can help young children to manage their challenges by making them feel special and well supported. Children should be encouraged to enjoy, participate and do their best,” she says.

They should also be reassured that in different situations, their participation and doing their best may not achieve a prize. However, it does not detract from how valued they are for having a go and for congratulating the winner. Parents and carers who are supportive and encouraging during situations that allow young children to manage ‘not winning’ and to bounce back are ensuring that their children are developing resilient capabilities that are essential to effective functioning in the wider community.

If a child can walk away from a game, a school assignment or any other personal challenge and say “I did my best”, “I had fun”, or “I learned something new” they’re a winner. Regardless of what the scoreboard says.

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