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Winning and Losing Gracefully

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Interview with Dr. Susan K. Perry

Growing up, my family enjoyed nightly slam-downs of Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and Rummy Q. My boy is just over four and we’ve started up the family tradition full-bore (Candyland is big.) However, I don’t remember our tradition including constant rule-changing, cheating, and gloating upon victory — all behaviors my worthy, young opponent employs. Talking to parents around me, I know I’m not alone. For insight into the competitive natures of our players, I got in touch with Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., human development expert and social psychologist. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

What are the pros and cons of having a competitive child?

Some people insist that, as it’s such a competitive society out there, we should equip our kids early for that competition. Others take what I consider a more humanistic view, which is to instill the idea into our children that they are worthy as people, that they can always improve in any realm of activity in which they invest their effort, but that they don’t have to necessarily beat out everyone else to be winners. Encouraging them to compete against their own best level of achievement makes the most sense to me. A TOO-competitive child is going to discover that there are always others who will do better. And that can be a hard lesson.

How do I encourage my children to win and lose gracefully and how will this benefit them later in life?

You can best teach graceful losing by being a good loser yourself. Say a team you like loses. Don’t blame anyone, least of all the umpire. Just let it go or you risk making it seems as though all that matters is winning. When you lose to your preschooler at a board game based on luck, say, “I lost, but that’s okay. Maybe I’ll win next time.” And express your sense of fun about playing. Don’t let your child’s first experience of losing be with a friend or schoolmate. Better to learn at home where you can model graceful behavior for both winning and losing.

Hardly anyone likes to lose, especially when they’ve worked hard to prepare for a game or sport. Yet those who learn to accept losses effortlessly are better suited for later life. Learning to be a good loser will help your child have higher self-esteem, make more friends, and persist through subsequent failures.

As for winning with good grace, point out to your child that other people have feelings too. By putting himself in the loser’s place, he will come to understand why gloating or name-calling is hurtful.

When children change the rules, should parents roll with it or resist or something in-between?

When your child changes the rules of a game on you, that’s when you bring up the idea of fairness. It’s fine to change rules, so long as all participants in the game agree, and usually ahead of time. A game is just a game, after all, but everyone has to be playing by the same rules or it’s simply not fair. So, for the very youngest child, I wouldn’t make a fuss, but as they get a bit older, say 5 or 6, it’s time to talk about fairness.

How should parents react/deal with their children blatantly cheating in order to win?

First, consider whether you’ve put too much emphasis on winning at all costs, or made your child feel extra bad when he or she has lost previously. A good shared laugh and a “Oh, that was fun!” is a great response whether you (the adult) win or lose.

When your child obviously cheats, here’s what you can do. First, be sure they have understood the rules. Then determine if you yourself have made the whole point of the game winning, and not just fun. Also keep in mind that children under age 5 might cheat without meaning to. By confusing fantasy with reality, they might figure they can simply make winning happen by cheating.

When you do catch your child cheating, don’t overreact, and don’t call him a cheater. Calmly let him know that what he’s doing isn’t fair and that he must follow the rules of the game. Make it clear that cheating cancels out winning, but try not to make him feel like a bad person.

If your child has become a habitual cheater—to make himself feel more powerful—it’s time to talk about honesty and trust. Read “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Talk about why it’s wrong to lie and cheat and how it makes people feel when he does it. And find ways to help your child feel competent in other areas of his life.

Is it appropriate to let the children win? If so, when? If not, why?

It’s okay to let very young kids win by rigging the game in their favor, so long as they don’t know you’re doing it. If they see that you’re, in effect, cheating on their behalf, it gives a bad message. Playing by the rules, whatever those rules have been decided to be, teaches fairness. A child needs to learn to be a good loser by sometimes losing. If they don’t, fitting into school life will be very hard for them. People don’t enjoy spending time with sore losers who feel entitled to win.

The best way to teach fair play is to make most of the games you play with your child fair from the beginning. You can do that by handicapping the one who wins most often. When your child is old enough to get this, say, “Because you haven’t played this game as many times as I have, you can start three spaces ahead ” or “Because I’m older, it’s more fair for you to have an extra turn.” Both of you need to agree on such changes. If she won’t agree, or still frets when she loses, spend more time playing games where luck is a larger factor and therefore she has a more equal shot at winning. Playing cooperative games is a happy solution, teaching them you don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. It can be wonderful fun when everyone wins.

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a human development expert and social psychologist. She is the author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14, available on her site bunnyape.com

Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions