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Teaching children to lose gracefully so they can lose with dignity as adults

young child crying

During my years as an early childhood teacher, I learned very quickly which children were driven to be the best – the fastest – the winner. Some children were not especially bothered by losing, whereas others turned every opportunity into a competition. These children were the first to reach the classroom door when the bell rang, the first to finish their lunch, and the first to raise their hand when a teacher asked a question. It was often these same children who struggled with big feelings when they lost.

I remember one boy in particular, “Charles.” Charles fell into a tantrum one afternoon after losing a board game to “Henry.” Through his tears, Charles sobbed, “I know it’s okay to lose. I just don’t want to lose to him! He cheated.” Henry and Charles were at the front of the class when it came to racing to be first. Henry had not cheated, but Charles’s feelings were hurt.

Managing feelings that come with losing can be challenging for preschoolers and adults alike. In preschool, we are the best at everything – or so we believe – and this makes it especially hard to lose. It’s not until early elementary school that most children develop a more realistic vision of themselves along with their skills and abilities. No one likes to lose, but we can help our children learn how to manage their feelings when they do while also helping them practice good sportsmanship. Whether playing a game with our children at home or cheering them on from the sidelines, here are strategies to help children learn to win and lose gracefully so that they can do so with dignity as adults: 

  1. Play “low stakes” games together where everyone takes turns winning and losing. From board games to games in the car, make supportive competition part of your family routine in a way that doesn’t make winning or losing too big of a deal. Short games that allow players to lose, win, and try again in a supportive environment can help your child see that both are part of having fun together. 
  2. Acknowledge disappointment from losing. Teach your child that it’s okay to feel disappointed after losing. Feeling disappointed is normal, but there are different ways to express that disappointment. Some children may be ready to jump back in and play again. Others may need to step away from the game, take a break, ask for a hug, spend a little time alone, listen to music, or read a book to calm down. Let your child know there are lots of ways to show disappointment, but that it’s never okay to say mean, disparaging, or untruthful words about others just because your feelings are hurt (e.g., “I’m supposed to win – not them! They must have cheated!”). Even if your child wins, talk about how those who lost are feeling. How do you think they are feeling? Have you ever felt that way?
  3. Practice good sportsmanship. Share with your child that even if they feel upset or disappointed, they can practice good sportsmanship by congratulating those who did win. Find meaningful ways to be a good sport even during informal games at home whether you win or lose. Shake hands. Say, “Good game!” Share a genuine compliment with the other player or players to let them know something they did that was really positive or showed skill/improvement. Thinking about others’ feelings can often help children manage their own (e.g., “They worked really hard – just like me!”).
  4. Be a role model for your child. Whether you win or lose the games you play with your child, use these moments as opportunities to be a positive role model. Share with your child when you feel disappointed or frustrated after losing and show them how you manage your feelings (e.g., “Sometimes I take a deep breath and tell myself that it’s okay to be upset. Then I remember how much I enjoyed playing with you. Just because I lost doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time, too.”).
  5. Talk about luck and chance. Losing in any situation is no fun and some children have a strong response to losing no matter what. For other children (and adults), the type of situation makes a difference. Some games take very little effort to win or lose, relying mostly on chance (e.g., rolling dice or choosing cards at random). Talk with children about luck and chance and let them know that sometimes you choose cards that help you win and sometimes you don’t – this is not your fault and does not reflect on who you are. Over time, games of chance become easier for children to win/lose and are a great way to practice managing their feelings. 
  6. Use a growth mindset and focus on effort. For children and adults alike, it can feel harder to lose at a game or competition that relies on personal or team performance than losing a game based on chance. When children are preparing for a competition, praise them for the effort they put in and for how hard they worked (“You have been practicing a lot! I can tell how much you’ve learned.”). Focus on effort even after a competition ends whether your child won or lost. This encourages children to recognize that they can practice, improve, learn, and grow, making it more likely they will try again. Focusing on winning as the most important outcome (e.g., “being a winner” or “not being a loser”) can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem. Rather than believing they have the potential to grow, children may turn hurt feelings inward, believing they are a failure or not good enough. These types of feelings can make being a good sport especially hard.
  7. Turn losing into an opportunity to reflect and learn. After calming down from initial feelings of upset or disappointment, reflect together on the game or competition. Ask questions like, “What went well?” “Is there something you learned that will help next time?” These types of questions might be especially helpful for games that require skill (e.g., chess, physical sports). For competitions grounded in ideas, beliefs, values, and/or popularity (e.g., a school or presidential election), it may be helpful to practice positive reframing (e.g., “My opponent had ideas that resonated with more people than mine did. Maybe those ideas are a better fit for what is wanted and needed. Maybe I could learn from those ideas, too.”).

Being a good sport after winning or losing comes more naturally to some children than others, but all children can learn these skills with practice and support. Charles and Henry never lost their competitive spirits, but they did learn to stop saying hurtful words about one another when they lost. They even took pride in one another’s wins from time to time and at very least, learned to shake hands before turning away to manage their disappointment.

Shauna Tominey, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of practice in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and a parenting education specialist. She serves as the statewide coordinator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, an initiative to provide high-quality parenting education. As a former early childhood teacher and parenting educator, Shauna blends practical experience with research to develop programs aimed at promoting social-emotional skills for children and the adults in their lives. She is the author of “Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children.”

This story was originally posted on the Creating Compassionate Kids blog.

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