I am sure we have all witnessed what happens at birthday parties these days where games like pass the parcel have been changed so no one loses, and everyone gets a prize to protect kids from experiencing disappointment and uncomfortable feelings that come with losing. This is also happening in schools when everyone gets a ribbon for participation no matter where they come in their race. This excessive sense of entitlement is creating significant mental health problems for our kids and decreasing their levels of resilience.
When we lose, either in a race, playing a game or get passed over in a selection process, it is essentially us not getting what we want. When children become used to getting things through no effort of their own, and feel entitled to win all the time, it is much more likely that they will feel extremely disillusioned when they don’t get what they want and be unable to manage when things don’t go their way.
None of us can go through life without ever facing the experience of losing, whether that be not winning a race at a sports carnival, losing a match of competitive sport, getting passed over for a promotion at work. We will all experience the discomfort of losing at some stage in our lives as life is naturally full of failures, even for the most successful people.
Kids need to build up a tolerance for discomfort – an emotional callous if you will. Building this tolerance for discomfort is important because discomfort is a big part of life. Your child needs to be able to identify how they are feeling and learn how to manage these emotions in order to develop a tolerance for them. And make no mistake, if they don’t learn to tolerate the discomfort of losing, they’re going to be very frustrated throughout life. Here are some practical ways you can teach your child to be gracious when they win or lose.
We have plenty of opportunities during periods of social distancing and self-isolation that Coronavirus has visited upon us to help our children learn how to lose gracefully.
Start when they’re young
You can start helping your child develop the skills to handle losing and not getting what they want when they are quite young. Providing small, developmentally appropriate, opportunities for them to experience losing in easy to manage situations enables them to learn how to deal with uncomfortable feelings such as disappointment and anger. You know your child best and know what they are developmentally capable of dealing with. Decide if they can manage being on the losing end of a game or if it’s easier for them to focus on being a good sport and what that looks like. Learning these lessons when they are young provides them with a firm foundation to handle situations when things don’t go their way.
Talk about it
Talk with your child before they go into situations where they may lose in games or races and ask them how they think they might feel if this happens. Explain that it is ok if they feel sad, disappointed, or angry that things didn’t go their way, but it’s not ok to be nasty or mean to their friends because they won. This type of conversation helps prepare your child for the fact that losing is a possibility and that enjoying the game or activity is the aim of being involved.
Also, take the time to talk with your child if they have lost a game or competition as this can help them process their feelings experiencing. Acknowledging that they are upset validates their feelings and helps them feel understood and supported. But also focus the conversation on what they did well, the effort they put in, the way they were a part of the team, or the fun they seemed to be having while they were participating. These conversations help them process the experience as a whole and not simply focus on the outcome of winning or losing.
Don’t always let them win
If you always let your child win in order to protect them from disappointment and uncomfortable feelings this will rob them of the opportunity to learn how to manage frustration, disappointment, and struggles. I am not saying you have to beat them at games every single time, just once in a while so they can develop the skills to cope with losing and having things not go their way. When children are young even little losses can feel huge and cause major meltdowns. But throughout their lives, they will experience many larger losses and it’s your job to equip them with the skills and tools they will need to successfully deal with those.
Teach them how to be gracious
Teaching your child to be gracious whether they win or lose is a skill that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. As a gracious winner, or loser, is much more likely to develop positive relationships than a child who boasts and brags when they win or sulks and has a meltdown when they lose. If they are involved in team activities encourage them to acknowledge the contribution of the other children on their team as well as demonstrating respect for their opponents by shaking hands. You can also role model what being a gracious loser looks like by allowing them to win at games and then congratulating them and saying something like “It was fun playing the game with you and I had lots of fun even though I lost” “I can try to win next time”. This role modeling is critical because it teaches them what language they can use when they don’t win in games and the attitudes gracious winners display.
Winning and losing is a part of life. Providing opportunities for children to not always get what they want, lose at games, and experience discomfort develop their resilience. Doing this within a safe, loving, and supportive family environment is the best way to prepare children for life’s challenges.