Teaching kids how to lose

Not everybody wins the game or takes first prize at the county fair, so it's important to teach your kids how to lose.

Ah summer! Little League games are in full swing along with camps, annual celebrations in a slew of towns and cities and of course the county fair. These activities all come with a certain amount of built in competition which most kids can handle. But what happens if you have that child who crumbles when coming in second or not placing at all? We all know these kids; in my family it was Lucy who experienced a meltdown at age 4 if she didn’t win the memory matching game. I don’t know how many games I played with her over those the years with her winning 90 percent of the time and still wanting that tenth win. This high school valedictorian, now in her late 20s, is still very competitive but has learned to be a gracious loser and can turn losses and third place wins into a lesson for future reference. So what can we do for those children who have a hard time losing?

First take a good look at your behavior, what have you demonstrated to your kids through your sportsmanship behavior? Are you a positive or negative role model in this department? Hold a discussion about sportsmanship; what it is and what it isn’t. For example, a good sport doesn’t throw their bat when they strike out. A poor sport complains to all that the judges weren’t fair and they should have received the Grand Champion award. Nobody likes a sore loser.

Take a look at your expectations because success takes many forms. Are your kids only successful if they come in first? Think realistically, it’s rare to always be first.

Secondly, play games with your kids and play to win. Never letting a child lose is a mistake. Use losing a teachable moment. Ask your child questions regarding what could be done differently next time. Support your kids without making excuses for them.

Encourage kids to express their feelings unless it’s harmful to themselves or someone else. Listen for negative self-talk and blaming others for the outcome. It’s certainly okay for kids to want to win and for parents to want their children to win and it’s okay to feel disappointed. Have a conversation about that disappointment and share a “losing” story from your past to let them know it happens to everyone and does not define them. Don’t minimize their feelings, right now, kids feel like this is the worst thing that could have happened.

Teach children that the whole process of joining a team, raising a fair animal or eating the most pie at your town’s annual celebration is more than just that moment. An important part is also about enjoyment; did they have fun? Giving it your all through practice and participation is a huge part of success. Winning the top prize is the added bonus.

A great resource for more on this topic are two books written by award winning sports journalist and author, Sam Weinman addresses this topic in his book, “Win at Losing: How to Help Kids See Success in Their Failures” and “Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains.”

Michigan State University Extension also can address the topic of teaching kids about wining, losing, leadership and many more life skills.