From board games to competitive sports, winning and losing will come up many times throughout your child’s life. Teaching your child to understand their feelings and how to respond when around others company is an important life skill that will help them socialise and learn to celebrate life’s joys while also riding out the more difficult moments.
Losing at a game or coming last in a race may seem small to us now as adults and this can make it hard to connect to children’s strong emotions. So let me turn this into ‘an adult situation’. Can you think of a time when you went for a job interview you really wanted but didn’t get the job? How did that feel? What words did you use to explain this to others? And what about a time when you DID get the job? How did you react after your hung up and how did you share this with others?
Early play experiences are critically important. They help children learn how to process their feelings. However, young children don’t have the ability to express all their feelings or understand some of their emotions. They may cry and get upset, or run around the house screaming “I won! I won!” at the top of their lungs. This part of their learning process. They need help from YOU to learn how best to respond in these social situations.
Competitiveness is natural. Among primary school aged children there is a ‘peak’ in competitiveness at around 4 years of age. If you have heard your child say things like “mine is bigger, better, faster…” you know what I am talking about! Children at around this age are starting to understand the concept of ‘winning’ and although they do not understand the complexities, they know winning is ‘good’ and losing is ‘bad’.
But your child’s ‘must-win’ attitude can get in the way of social relationships. Young children do not always make the connection between their behaviour and others' reactions because their brain is ‘ego-centric’ focusing only on themselves. This can cause confusion and upset to your child if they are reprimanded or they start to see less willingness in their peers to want and play with them.
As parents, there are things you can do to help your child handle the defeat and the winning well, without big explosions of emotion. I have listed some ideas below.
Talk it out! Prior to playing board games as a family or going out with friends in a situation you know may bring out your child’s competitive streak – talk about difference scenarios.
How will they feel if they lose at a game?
How will their friend feel if they are the winner?
Talking about what may happen helps. Knowing from the beginning that losing is one possibility can help to prepare your child for the possibility of becoming upset because their expectation of winning is no longer 100%.
Don’t Always Let Them Win
Many parents allow their kids to win at most games to help them build their self-confidence. This is particularly true if your child becomes deeply upset or down on themselves every time they lose or don’t come first place at something.
However, experiencing disappointment is important in helping children learn how to lose and what it may feel like for others when they lose against them. It teaches them about the reciprocity of feelings and the beginnings of empathy.
Furthermore, when your child is out in the “real world”, for example at school, they will experience losing and not being on top all the time. That can be a hard lesson to learn without you. So starting at home where you can offer them support and guidance is important.
This doesn’t mean you have to win against your child at every game! Just make sure there is a fair balance of winning and losing so your child can experience both of these emotions and reactions.
Practice Graceful Winning & Losing Modelling to your child what graceful winning and losing looks like is one of the simplest and most effective ways to help children learn socially appropriate responses.
When you lose, let your child see how you overcome disappointment when you lose, show them how you congratulate the winner and can still smile in defeat.
Point out how well the winner played and also the things that you were proud of in your own performance.
Instead of: “I hate playing with you. You always win”
Try: “Well played Alex! You did some really great throws. I had some pretty good aims at those bowls too. Next time I will have better luck!”
Instead of: “We suck. That was rubbish”
Try: “Great game guys! You really gave us a run around! I tried to dribble past but your goal keeping was superb today”
In the same way demonstrate appropriate ways to react when you win at something.
Show your child that you can be happy about winning AND show genuine appreciation for those involved in the game or activity. Try as much as you can to emphasise the importance of playing TOGETHER. No winning or losing can happen when we play alone so doing things together is what needs to hold the greatest value.
Showing graceful winning will also help your see what emotional control looks like. This is an important executive function skill.
Instead of: “I WON!!! WOOOOOOP!”
Try: “YES! That was such fun! Great game guys, you really made that interesting today! Have you got time for another round?”
Instead of: “I did it! FINALLY! I beat you!”
Try: “I did it! That was a bit of luck, your serves were huge! Thank you for playing tennis with me, that was so much fun. Do you want to play again next weekend?”
Praise Your Child’s Efforts Saying “well done!” or “clever kid!” emphasises the outcome of an activity and reinforces the need for winning or getting good results over the importance of play and learning. It focuses on outcome rather than helping your child learn about the process of an activity.
Tell your child how proud you are because of the effort they put into an activity—regardless of whether they win or lose. Use descriptive words to highlight the areas you are proud of.
Instead of saying: "Did you win?" or "What grade did you get?"
Ask: "Did you have fun?", "What did you learn?"
Instead of: “You won! I am SO proud of you!”
Try: “You won! I am SO proud of how well you worked with your teammates to set up that final goal.”
Instead of: “Such a shame you lost. You’ll do better next time”
Try: “Such a shame you lost. You did so well with your tactical move on the board when you put me behind 10 spaces! I had so much fun playing with you”
I hope these ideas will help you begin to make steps to tone some of the game playing down if you need to! Are you worried your child is a sore loser or a perhaps they are an ‘over-the-top’ winner?
If there are big emotions in your house around competitiveness and you think talking it through with me would help book in a quick 20 minute Q&A session and a 1 hour consultation for a more in depth conversation. If none of the available slots fit with your time you can also contact me for further availability.