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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.

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.