A little competitiveness is normal among children. After all, from the time they’re little, we cheer them on anytime they accomplish something, so it’s natural to want to experience that “winning” feeling as often as possible. But losing with grace is a skill that all children need to develop in order to deal with life’s inevitable highs and lows.
In the short term, being a gracious loser will help playdates, recess, and visits to the local playground go more smoothly. In the long run, learning how to lose graciously helps children deal with disappointments later in life, whether it’s losing a spot on a team, not getting into their first-pick college, or missing out on a promotion at work.
Here are a few simple ways to teach kids how to lose graciously.
Shift the focus.
Instead of talking about winning or losing, center your conversations around always doing your best and having a good time. Adults know that not every win is because of skill, sometimes a little luck is involved, too. Plus, there’s always room for improvement, even for the winners! Kids have a hard time understanding this, especially younger ones, but if you teach them from an early age that it’s the effort that goes into something that counts, they’ll have a much healthier attitude about competition overall.
Focusing solely on the outcome of games or disagreements can also lead to kids defining themselves in potentially damaging ways. For example, thinking of themselves as “someone who wins at soccer” can really shake their self worth if and when they eventually lose. On the other hand, thinking of themselves as someone who works hard at practice and cares about their teammates are positive traits that aren’t impacted by the scoreboard.
Be a good loser.
A parent is a child’s greatest role model, so if they see you getting upset about losing, they’ll be much more likely to react that way when they lose, too. When faced with a loss, try to temper your, well, temper, whether it’s a pickup game of basketball in the driveway or Chutes and Ladders with your preschooler.
Let them win—sometimes.
This may seem counterintuitive, but letting your child win presents an opportunity for you to display those aforementioned skills of losing graciously. On the other hand, letting them lose allows you to show them that winners don’t gloat, and gives them the opportunity to practice their “losing” skills in a safe environment. If your child is upset about losing to you, offer them a good game handshake, similar to what’s done after sporting events.
Be careful with firsts.
Whether they’re the first person served dessert after dinner or they always get first pick on movie nights, being first can feel a lot like winning, especially to younger children. Taking turns being first at home helps to prevent them from getting so comfortable being first that they come to expect it, so that over time they don’t get the false impression that they’re somehow entitled to go before everyone else. If your child is always grabbing the lead spot in the school lunch line or rushing to be first to receive a treat, ask them to think about how others feel when they’re made to wait (or worse, pushed aside). Challenging them to think about other people’s feelings helps them realize it’s not just their emotions that count.
Read books about good sportsmanship.
Sometimes kids need to see sore losers in action to understand what it’s like when they act that way, too. Reading books about good sportsmanship shows them what that looks like when those scenarios play out. It also presents opportunities to talk about the importance of good sportsmanship. Asking how they think certain characters are feeling throughout your reading sessions prompts them to think about the feelings of others as well as their own, especially when it comes to winning and losing. Perfect for preschoolers through age 8, Sally Sore Loser and Number One Sam teach kids that having fun is what’s most important. For middle school kids, Touchdown Trouble and Royal Crush: From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess are standouts.
Finally, if your child is really upset, walk them through their loss.
Did they lose because they need more practice to improve their skill, or was it just plain luck? If it’s the former, offer to help them polish their skills and remind them that there’s no shame in working to do better next time. If the loss was related to a debate or disagreement, emphasize the importance of the relationship and your child’s mental health over being the one who’s “right.” There are multiple reasons for both wins and losses, and understanding losses and what can be done to set yourself up for success next time is crucial to learning how to win—or lose—graciously.