When winning is everything

How to help a child who hates to lose

To celebrate my son Aaron’s fifth birthday, we had the cousins over for some old-fashioned games, starting with musical chairs. Clicking tunes on and off, I watched kids slink around the back-to-back chairs, eager to pounce. Soon, the eliminated were cheering on the final three, including Aaron — whose history of throwing a fit every time he lost a round of Go Fish must have slipped my mind. Glowing, the birthday boy seemed to be having the time of his life — that is until he almost slugged his sister for her seat.

“You’re out!” we told Aaron, which sent him, screaming, to his room.

There was nothing to do but break out the pinata and distract everyone with sugar. My husband and I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed and, frankly, confused. Why was our youngest child always such a sore loser? And what were we going to do about it?

The rage stage

“Age has a lot to do with the inability to lose gracefully,” explains parent educator Julie Freedman Smith, co-founder of Parenting Power, a Calgary company that helps moms and dads find their own “right way” to parent. When they first learn to play games, preschoolers can only see their own point of view. They play a game thinking they will win, not realizing the other players are doing the same. So losing comes as a shock that feels like the end of the world.

By grade one, kids start to understand that there is only one winner, but that doesn’t mean they like it. “Let’s face it, winning feels good,” Freedman Smith says. And young kids, in particular, want to please their parents by proving they are “good enough” to win. They feel terrific when they hear dad cheering, so it’s only natural that they feel the opposite — embarrassed, ashamed, angry, sad — when they don’t get that big reaction. So make sure to applaud your child’s effort, whether or not his turn at bat produces a home run.

Over time, a child’s ability to handle losing will improve. “As kids age, they learn that you win some, you lose some,” says Mitch Zeltzer, co-founder of Dynamix, a team-building and character-development organization for Toronto kids and teens. And the older the kid, the less he defines his worth by winning and losing. “At 10, his identity is no longer all about success at one game,” Zeltzer says. “Now he might realize he’s OK at baseball, but awesome at math puzzles.”

 Responding right

Still, there are some kids who have a competitive streak that just seems to grow along with them. Is that because they’re naturally more aggressive? “Maybe, but it’s your response to that aggression that’s key,” Zeltzer says. If you always race to your raging five-year-old with “Oh, poor baby!” or hand him a lollipop to soothe his tears, you’re encouraging a repeat performance. Adds Freedman Smith, “Your job is not to distract your child from the sad feeling of losing, but to teach him to express it respectfully so he won’t just slap his hockey stick around when he’s older.”

If there is an outburst, Freedman Smith recommends asking your child what he needs: “I get that you’re sad. Would a hug help or do you need time alone to cry?” Zeltzer suggests you let your child release the rage through physical activity, such as jogging a few blocks around the neighbourhood. When he’s cooled off, talk to him about more appropriate ways to manage his feelings.

To avoid future blow-ups, you may be tempted to steer your child clear of competitive situations, but Zeltzer advises against this. “Banning games altogether, just to avoid dealing with your child’s fury when she loses, is a bad idea,” he says. You may have sidestepped a tantrum, but you’ve also lost a valuable learning opportunity. Kids need competition to learn that perseverance, even in the face of failure, will strengthen both their character and skills. After all, you have to be a good sport in the game of life; you can’t just fall apart when your colleague snags that promotion you were gunning for.

Elisa Garay, a Toronto hockey mom, routinely deals with her share of “it’s not fair” feelings. “In a group sport, it’s not just your opponents who are targets of blame, but also your own teammates,” she points out. That’s why she constantly reminds her three boys that winning isn’t the priority; sportsmanship, honing skills and having fun are.
And while it’s tempting to let your kids beat you at board games, doing so can sometimes backfire, warns Freedman Smith. “If your child is smart enough to see that you’re going easy on him, he’ll get the message that you think he doesn’t have it in him to win fair and square.” You’re also feeding his need to win rather than helping him learn how to lose.

Instead, she suggests, try playing some luck-based games, such as Candy Land or Trouble, where kids’ chances of winning are higher. And when playing skill-based games like checkers or chess, help your little one along by offering advice before he moves, or letting him join your “team” until he gets the hang of the rules.

Throughout the game, keep your child focused on the effort and enjoyment by pointing out what she is doing well, with positive feedback like “Hey, nice move!” and “Gee, you’re really fun to play with.” If you’ve hit point 19 in a game of 21, and you can already see the tears forming, stop, take a breather and remind her this a game you’re playing for enjoyment. Freedman Smith suggests saying “Whether you win or I win, let’s both remember to have fun.”

If you focus on fun above all, so eventually will your kids — something Garay learned on a recent family vacation, watching her seven-year-old, Shael, participate in a fast-paced treasure hunt for various items. After an hour, only he and his friend were still in the running. To allow both kids to come out winners, the two moms yelled, “Tie!” But then the resort’s staff called out the last item in the hunt, a swimsuit cover-up; someone from the crowd handed one to Shael’s opponent and, just like that, the game was over.

Garay was all set to soothe her son’s hurt when he shouted: “We won! My friend came in first and I came in second!”

“That’s when I realized that he had the best time,” Garay says, “and to him, that was what mattered.”

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