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Does Your Child Need to Win at Everything? (Don’t Let Him)

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Many parents complain that they can’t play games with their kids. A 5-year-old plays Candyland, loses, and throws the dice across the floor. A 9-year-old plays Apples to Apples with two friends, loses and runs up to her room shouting to her friends that they are cheaters. A 16-year-old drops out of gymnastics because her coach refuses to let her compete at a higher level until she improves. An 18-year-old refuses to apply to college because none is “good enough” to get him the job that he feels he deserves.

Any of these sound familiar?

You’re not alone. There are a lot of kids out there who simply don’t lose well.

If any of these describe traits of your child, here’s the good news: he or she can change.

But here’s the bad news: you have to make it happen.

And that means a struggle. But don’t worry, it won’t last. It’s a fight that you must have because his developing into a happy adult depends on it. The truth is, losing is no fun for anyone and some kids (and adults) handle it better than others. If you have more than one child, you know this. But the reality is, life is hard and every person needs to learn to lose, because we all will—at something. So the earlier you teach your child that losing is manageable, the more easily she will adjust to life.

What’s behind it all? Kids who can’t lose are run by fear: of being out of control or of feeling stupid. Once we see their fits over losing as rooted in fear, we can more easily deal with it because no parent wants a child to be hamstrung by fear. When parents allow kids to continue to throw fits, quit sports, or be mean and obnoxious to friends because of losing, they are saying to their kids “you really should be afraid.” This is a cruel thing to allow kids to persist in and no loving parent would do this. So, what should we do?

If your daughter won’t play games because she has to win, don’t play with her. Rather than tell her she’s no fun to play with, tell her that when she’s ready to win some games and lose some games, then you will play. Tell her that sometimes you, too, win and sometimes you lose and then show her that’s OK.

Make sure he stays with things even when he’s losing. If your fifth grader has a habit of quitting things when he starts to feel badly about his performance (or if the coach won’t play him much), make him stay in the game. Don’t make him stay in an activity he hates, but if you feel he’s bailing because he can’t have his way, make him tough it out.

Stay very matter-of-fact about winning and losing. Many parents oogle when their kids win and complain when they fail. Kids quickly realize that in order to get Mom or Dad’s attention and approval, they need to keep winning. So, if your child wins a game, tell them “congratulations” and then move on. If they lose, tell them “that’s too bad” and then go on to the next thing. Winning and losing should be normal life events.

Help Them Lose Well

Many kids fear losing because they are afraid that their parents will think worse of them. Whether you do or don’t is immaterial; that’s just how some kids feel. So you need to put them in situations (as they get older) where they will fail. Challenge them to take a tough course and get a C. Push them to play a sport that they’re not particularly good at. This way, they can see how you respond to them “losing.” When they see you applaud their effort, good sportsmanship, and hard work, they will realize that you love them in spite of “winning.” This is a huge lesson for many kids.


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