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How To Help Kids Lose

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Everyone likes to win and little kids are no exception. But you cannot win them all and losing often throws young children (and older ones) into a tailspin. How can you help your child learn how to lose?

For some parents, the answer is to coach kids harder so they always win.  But this only means that when a child loses – which is inevitable – the parent is as disappointed as the child is. A winners-only mentality signals to a child that she’s only as good as the score. She’s not valued for herself.

Children first become aware of winning at about age 5, when they start to recognize comparisons. They suddenly understand bigger and smaller, taller and shorter, faster and slower, and better and best. This is the age when children begin to evaluate who got the bigger ice cream cone, whose school shoes are better than whose, and who scored the winning goal. There’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s not competition that’s the problem, it’s comparison. The truth is, only one child can be the best at any one thing. Everyone else is not. That’s an awful lot of losers, if children are raised to believe that winning is the only important thing. If children spend their time comparing themselves to others and slotting themselves into a hierarchy, they are certain to be disappointed, discouraged, and sad.

This is exactly what happens by age 9 if not before. As anyone who’s ever endured a one-at-a-time team choosing ritual can tell you, everyone knows who is the best at anything. Everyone knows who is the worst. And everyone knows the relative position of every child in between. Whether it’s spelling, kickball, or math, by third grade the roster is established for every skill and everyone knows his place.

This is what happens when there is a winner, a best score, a highest grade. If one is fated to be the worst on the soccer team, what is the point of trying harder? What’s the point of soccer at all? And if one’s soccer team is the worst in the league, what’s the point of going to practice or trying hard in games? A kid already knows how things will turn out.

The solution is to manage competition by managing comparison. Instead of comparing himself to other children, guide your child in comparing his performance today to his performance before. Aim for achieving a “personal best.” That way, no matter what the score or what your child’s ranking among his classmates or teammates, he has opportunities to win every day.

Now, at the beginning of the school year, is the ideal time to focus on your child’s personal best. Here are some tips.

  • With your child, pick an area to focus on and one achievement to measure. This can be your child’s sport and one skill in that (like “softball” and “throwing power”) but it could also be  school skill, a social accomplishment or anything else of value to your child.
  • With your child, set a goal. Without making any negative comments at all, record what is the current level of performance. Then help your child set a goal. If the goal seems too ambitious, accept that but also help your child set intermediate goals. Remember that the goal should be in terms of your child’s own performance, not becoming “better” than anyone else.
  • With your child, find ways to meet the goal. Start working towards it. Keep track every week or so to record whatever is the new “personal best” or to notice any backsliding.
  • Remember that making progress is its own reward. While you and your child can certainly celebrate new levels of competence, avoid trying to motivate your child with bribes or threats.  If your child loses interest in improvement, she might not have chosen the right area to focus on. Help her find another task that really matters to her.

The really nifty thing about seeking one’s personal best is that’s the way a kid can win all the time. Striving to work hard and inch closer to one’s goals feels like winning. Feels like winning because it is.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.