Being a good loser takes practice, so start teaching your kids early
From making sure everyone wins a prize at a birthday party, to not keeping score during backyard games, we often try to protect kids from experiencing the lows of losing.
But no-one can avoid losing forever, whether it’s coming last in a swimming carnival race or missing out at the end-of-year awards assembly.
Kirrilie Smout is a clinical psychologist specialising in children and adolescents. She says losing a game or competition is basically us not getting want we want.
She explains it’s very common for young kids to throw tantrums and have meltdowns when this occurs.
“We all know the adult that throws the tennis racquet across the court,” she says.
Can you prevent a tantrum-throwing kid becoming a racquet-throwing adult?
You can try, says Ms Smout, by helping your child experience losing in small, easy-to-handle situations early on so they learn how to deal with the negative feelings.
Here’s how to get started at home with toddlers and young children, ahead of family get–togethers, summer playdates and the school holidays.
Be a gracious loser to show kids how it’s done
Most adults are tempted to let little kids beat them at games to make the experience both encouraging and enjoyable.
This is perfectly fine, says Ms Smout, and you can use the opportunity of being on the losing side to model good behaviour.
“Teaching them to say ‘congratulations’ or ‘oh well, I can try again next time’ … If we can teach children this language about losing and how to cope with it, they will have better friendships than if they hadn’t lost,” she says.
Sydney-based Marina Cilona has two children, daughter Coco aged two-and-a-half, and son Max aged five-and-a-half.
Max has started kindy, taken up music lessons and started taekwondo. Marina says she’s surprised by how naturally competitive he can be.
“He seems to have that need to win, which is a bit worrying,” she says.
When they play games together at home, Marina says she often lets Max win.
“I will [let him win] not to avoid a meltdown or anything, but as an adult it’s easier for me to win … and so he enjoys it more,” she says.
- Try this: When you let a young child beat you at a game or race, show them how to act by congratulating, saying things such as, “I had fun even though I lost” and “I can try again”.
- Here’s why: Kids learn from watching their parents, so modelling wanted behaviour will help them develop that behaviour themselves. Also, the experience of winning helps kids learn the rules of a game and encourages play and interaction.
Give kids small experiences of losing with positive language
The home can be a good place to let your kids experience losing, and to teach them how to deal with disappointment.
Derek McCormack is the principal specialist with raisingchildren.net.au, an Australian parenting website supported by the Federal Government, which provides resources for parents and carers.
He says talking with a child who’s just lost a game or competition can help them process the experience.
“Having conversations that help them understand that [enjoying the activity is the aim] is really important because it helps them understand how to be a good sport,” Mr McCormack says.
While you should acknowledge that they lost and might be upset, focus the conversation on what they did well by saying things like, “I know you didn’t win this time, but I noticed you played along with the rules”.
Marina says she tries to show Max that the experience of a game or competition is more important than the final outcome.
“Teaching him that everything is a process and you have to put in the effort,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to teach Max at the moment.”
Sawal Bin Salleh is the chief instructor at the karate club in Wagga Wagga, NSW.
In addition to paid students, he has also coached his daughter Hana from a young age.
She first competed in a karate competition when she was just six, which she lost.
Sawal says he talks to Hana after each competition — win or lose — about how she found the experience as a whole and what she can learn from it, which helps keep her going when she’s had a disappointment in competition.
- Try this: When you’re playing games with very young children and they lose, use it as an opportunity to talk to them about what the game was like to help them focus on the fun.
- Here’s why: Talking to kids about the game or competition helps them process it as a whole experience and not just focus on the outcome. This helps them see that they can have fun or learn things even if they lose.
3. Be prepared for eMeltdowns: losing to a computer
Losing to a friend or sibling is one thing, but when the game is against artificial intelligence, the frustration can seem amplified.
Ms Smout says parents frequently ask for advice on how to handle meltdowns over electronic games at her practice.
She recommends parents talk with their kids about the game and also try to help them be prepared for losing.
“Sit with them and talk with them before they play the game,” she says.
She says to use tactics like asking the kids, “What are the calm sentences you are going to use if you lose to make you feel a bit better? Let’s draw a picture now of you using those calm sentences, like ‘I’m OK’ or ‘Never mind, I can try again’.”
She also suggests having something the child can go and do right after losing a game if they’re frustrated to help take their mind off it.
Mr McCormack says it’s important parents are across what games kids are playing on devices, not just to avoid violent content, but to make sure the kid is more likely to be able to play at the right level and will enjoy it more.
- Try this: Talk to your kid about the video games they play. Ask them what they enjoy about it, not what level they’re on. Help them plan another activity to go on with if they become frustrated.
- Here’s why: If they’re playing solo, there’s no-one to congratulate them if they win or talk to about the experience. Talking about the process of the game can help them focus on the fun and less on the frustration. Having something to take their mind off it when they get stuck can help stop a tantrum and gives them a break from screens.
Show kids how to be a gracious winner
It’s not just important to know how to lose well — it’s also an important life skill to learn how to be a good, gracious winner.
Mr McCormack says teaching your kids to be thoughtful and gracious, win or lose, will help them through life as they’re more likely to develop good relationships.
“A good winner is a child who is humble and not gloating around their win,” he says.
“One of the things that can build resilience without having a tough time is having good relationships with those around you.”
Sawal says this is something he has emphasised with Hana and his other karate students.
“Win or lose, Hana will smile to her opponent and shake their hand,” he says.
“Respect should always be given to one’s opponent, as without an opponent, one would not be able to compete in the first place.”
- Try this: Demonstrate being a good winner when playing with your kids. Shake hands and congratulate all the other players. And tell them something they did well when you win at a game.
- Here’s why: Being a gracious winner can help you form better friendships, which is an important part of being more resilient to life’s ups and downs.