This week, I'm answering a listener question that comes up all the time. How can we help our children to win and lose like champions?
"I don’t know what to do with my 5 year old who suddenly can’t stand to lose games. He was ok with it from 2-5.5, but recently gives up the second he’s behind. Then, he immediately starts whining and quits. Help!"
Learning to win and lose well doesn’t always come naturally. To sidestep the drama, some families call off all competition, and others decide it’s easier to just let their kids win.
Both options miss opportunities to stay in the game when you’re down, to consider someone else’s perspective, to manage disappointment, and to persist despite setbacks.
Model it. Let your child see you that you value sportsmanship, can comeback from challenges, use strategic self-talk, and congratulate winners.
Explain luck vs skill. Many games are not based on skill, which can be confusing to young children. Remind them that both winning and losing are temporary, and that certain abilities grow with time and effort. Other games are just based on luck.
Modify the teams. Play cooperative-style board games, or pair siblings as partners against parents.
Set individual goals. Pick activities where your child can compete against themselves. For example, time them running a certain distance and then have them do it again to beat their own record. Talk about improvements they have made over time – such as being able to score a goal when they didn’t last season.
Praise effort, not outcome. Help your child turn their losses into motivation to get better. Notice improvement (even losing well) and strategies used, not outcomes.
Teach “bounce back” statements. Equip them with phrases that show compassion and help them to recover, like “practice makes progress.”
Encourage empathy. Talk about being sensitive when things didn’t go well for someone else. Remind your child that their win means that someone else lost.
Play to win. Resist the temptation to let your child win to avoid their disappointment. They have to lose in order to become a good loser.
Play by the rules. For chance-based-games, don’t offer second-spins or special allowances.
Acknowledge feelings. Regardless of how silly it seems to you, let your child know it's normal to feel big feelings. Offer compassion, but don’t invalidate feelings by trying to offer perspective in the moment.
Use the word “Yet.” Stress that with effort and practice, they’ll eventually be able to do things they can't “yet.”
I hope these help! Remember, just like everything else, practice makes progress. Game night, anyone?