Updated: Feb 16
Competition is a good thing. It really is. It is healthy and it brings many benefits to our lives. It is also hard-wired into our very survival and fuels our path to success.
It also comes with big feelings. Just like any other big feeling, we need to learn to control them so that we don't end up hurt.
Controlling big feelings such as winning and losing is difficult, even for adults. And it doesn't help that our social norms favor winners and look down on losers. Despite our best intentions, I can't think of a way to avoid passing this winning mentality to our children.
So, let's face it, the case for children not standing to lose is a strong one.
Sure, some of the best ways to practice losing are playing sports, board games, and role-playing different winning and losing scenarios. They all have short durations, they can be repeated for different results, and they are fairly low risk.
I use the term "fairly" here cautiously because for some children, losing a card game can be a matter of life and death. They are willing to do anything to not lose. They will cheat, accuse other players or cheating, leave the game partway, mess up the pieces to avoid completing the turn, and that's only the beginning of a long list of strategies that children practice to avoid losing. If cornered and there is no way but to lose, they could throw a tantrum that lasts for hours and say that they never want to play "ever again."
What's a parent to do?
If we keep pushing them to play, it is a nightmare. I have heard from many parents that they gave up trying to play board games with their children because it became torture for everyone.
On the other hand, if we stop trying, it is also a nightmare because their attitude towards losing keeps getting worse and in some cases this can reach a point where the fear of losing could cripple their progress.
As parents, we are up against a real challenge here, but think about how much your child can achieve once they have successfully moved past this phase. They will be stronger, more resilient, and more confident, which will set them up for more winning and positive attitude in general. Even when they lose it is not such a big deal. Imagine!
The only way to get there is to muddle through this difficult phase. One step at a time and always with this goal in sight. The idea here is to help our children control these big feelings, not to erase competition from their lives.
Here are 3 strategies to get you started:
Strategy #1: Stretch it out
Let's say we are playing a board game or a card game. Instead of playing one round, we stretch it out to 3 or 5 rounds and the winner would be the one who wins most rounds.
Lesson: we don't have to win them all. Losing one of a few doesn't sting as badly.
Strategy # 2: Even the playfield
Rule of the house: if you win, then you have to tell the other side what they did right and how they can win next time. If you lose, then you have to tell the other side where their flaws were and how they can fix them for next time.
Lesson: No one is perfect. Even if we win, we can still improve our game.
Strategy #3: Model and Practice
Even the best of us lose sometimes and the sting always takes us by surprise.
When you are in a position where you lose or miss a deadline, share your feelings with your child. No need to exaggerate. Just let your child see that everyone loses sometimes and that it is okay. It is part of learning, growing, and a very important part of winning. If you are particularly brave, you will team up with your child to "win against losing". Call me if you are intrigued by this choice. I admire your courage already.
A different activity is to act out different scenarios. The idea is to bring the feelings out in a safe space so your child can practice both losing and reacting with empathy to other people's loss when they are not in the situation. To them, it is learning "risk-free".
*** Stay away from bedtime, mealtime, and just before an outing or big event.
Choose a time when your child is already calm and ready to accept discussion. ***
Whether the core of our children's struggle with competition is nature or nurture, it is our job as parents to help them learn how to manage this struggle and move past it. In this particular case, it may feel like torture, but it will get better the more you practice.