Malcolm storms off the field at the end of the soccer match in a fury because his team lost. He sulks on the bench with his face buried in his fists and refuses to shake hands with the opposing team. To make matters worse, his friends on the team are mad at him for being a sore loser.
Shannon bursts into tears, upends the board game and stomps off when her dad draws the winning card.
Why do some kids have more trouble than others losing gracefully? Temperament plays a role, says Toronto parent educator Beverley Cathcart-Ross. Kids who are more intense by nature, more determined or more easily frustrated may be overwhelmed by the disappointment that comes with losing.
“It’s also more common among firstborns than any other birth order position,” says Cathcart-Ross. “To be right, to be first, is part of their job descriptions.” First-time parents may unwittingly create an atmosphere where performance is evaluated a lot. Their kids worry they’ll let their parents down and may avoid activities where there’s a possibility of losing. When they do lose, they fall apart.
As parents, we know that losing gracefully is a life skill, important for building good relationships and for maintaining a sense of self-worth. “We want our children to be equipped to weather disappointment, to be able to say, ‘Bring it on. If it doesn’t work out, I can handle it,’” says Cathcart-Ross.
Kids can learn to be just as good at losing as they are at winning. Here are some strategies from Cathcart-Ross:
Don’t be afraid of the meltdown Rather than saying, “Stop acting like that,” acknowledge your child’s disappointment: “That was really hard for you and it was an important game.”
Talk about it later There’s nothing wrong with saying something like “A little sportsmanship would go a long way with your friends” when you talk about the meltdown. Parents can also ask questions that will help kids understand their feelings: “When you lost that game, did you think you were a loser or that your sister is better than you?” Kids need to know that we value them no matter whether they win or lose, says Cathcart-Ross.
Stress the effort If we take the focus off winning, our kids can too. After your daughter’s hockey game, talk about how much her stick handling has improved, how much teamwork you saw on the ice. Kids need to learn that challenging yourself is satisfying, says Cathcart-Ross. There will always be stronger and weaker players.
It really is about how you play the game How many of us have “lost” a game of checkers to our child in order to avoid a meltdown? It may be OK to “let” a child win now and again, but in general, it’s not a good strategy, says Cathcart-Ross. There’s no better place to learn about winning and losing than from a parent who can do both gracefully. Kids also need to understand that playing by the rules is important, and cheating isn’t allowed.
Model good sportsmanship Kids who can’t handle losing have gotten the idea that it’s not OK to lose. If we parents complain bitterly when we lose our tennis match or embarrass our kids when they lose, they learn that winning is the measure of personal worth. Kids need to hear us talk about our own disappointments and losses — not just in sports activities, but when we don’t get the promotion at work — without bitterness.
Encourage kids to take risks “I always said to my kids, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,’” says Cathcart-Ross. “I wanted them to know that I would rather see them make an effort and fail, than not make an effort at all — that we learn just as much from our failures as we do from our successes, and are able to move on.” She also emphasizes self-evaluation (as in “How did you feel about the game” and “What did you learn?”) to teach them not to be dependent on the evaluation of others.
With support and practice, kids will get better at losing. When they do, it’s important to acknowledge it, says Cathcart-Ross. “I can see that it’s hard for you that you lost. I know that you tried very hard and you did a really good job.”