Children love to win. But what happens when they lose? Children are inherently inept at managing their emotions. Losing a game, a race, or a sporting event, can feel overwhelming. One of our roles as parents is to teach our children how to lose with grace. Emotional regulation and good sportsmanship are vital skills in life.
So how do we do this?
Be mindful of what children observe in us
It begins with what we model as parents. What do we demonstrate to our children about winning and losing? What do we say in front of our children about winning and losing? Children absorb our behaviours and our commentary, so we need to be mindful about what they see and what they hear.
First and foremost, our children need to see us lose with grace. They need to see that if things don’t go well for us, we learn from our mistakes, and we don’t blame.
Our children may see us barrack for our sporting team, but they need to see that we can commend the opposition if they win. They need to see us praise the effort of the losing team. They need to see that we don’t blame umpires. Everyone makes mistakes, and umpire decisions need to be accepted.
Children need to see that when we (or our sporting teams) lose, we can learn from our losses, and we can move on...
Deal with winning and losing in family games
Don’t fall into the trap of constantly letting your child win. Children need to experience losing in an environment where losing is just part of the game.
They need to be reminded that “sometimes we win and sometimes we lose”. They need to hear us say “it’s only a game”. They need to learn that it’s not okay to lash out at others or to quit if it looks like they are not going to win. Everyone plays till the end, and everyone gets congratulated for a good game. The goal is the fun of playing together, rather than the win.
Validate their feelings
Children need to learn that it’s ok to feel frustrated, disappointed, or upset when they lose. Labelling and validating their feelings can help them to understand their feelings before they can move on. Once their feelings are heard, we can talk to them about being a good sport.
Overt the narrative of good sportsmanship
Our children need to see us praise sports people, tv contestants and public figures, who lose graciously. They need to hear a narrative about what it means to be a ‘good sport’. They need to see examples of sporting heroes who are gracious losers. When we value good sportsmanship, and highlight the associated commendable behaviours, our children learn about the value of these qualities, over and above the transient feeling of winning.
Children generally need to hear us praise their effort and encourage their learning and growth. This narrative is far more helpful for a child’s sense of self and sportsmanship than the one around winning, or being ‘the best’.
Children need to hear that different people have different strengths. Some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things.
Children need to understand that trying something (even though they may not be good at it) is a show of bravery.
Children need to learn that when we practise something, we can improve.
Children need to learn that they can be happy for the successes of others.
Ultimately, children need to learn to appraise themselves according to their own benchmarks for success, rather than by comparing themselves to the performance of others. This is more likely if children are raised in an environment where competition is fun, winning is a bonus, and good sportsmanship and humility are qualities that are valued.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network