While playing cards with his family, eight-year-old Joseph forgot to say “Uno!” when holding his last card and it cost him the game. The technicality disappointed and frustrated him so much that he ended up getting sent to his room to cool down. Joseph stormed off, threatening to never come downstairs again. “He was back down in five minutes,” recalls his mom, Laura of Bowmanville, Ont.
Though the family went on to have a great time playing Sorry!, Joseph ended up losing to his dad in a close defeat and smashed the board in a fit of anger. “We talked to him about good sportsmanship—that it is not okay to do that in a game ever,” says the mom of two, who adds that she believes part of Joseph’s issue is that he does not like to be wrong.
Though it may not always seem like it, kids this age can handle defeat. “This doesn’t mean that he will necessarily act gracefully when losing,” notes Alex Russell, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement (John Wiley & Sons Canada).
Even for adults, “losing sucks,” says Russell. It’s a reality that kids aged six to eight begin to contend with as more competition and scoring is introduced in their games. And it’s not something parents should pretend isn’t there. “To just say something sappy like ‘Did you enjoy yourself?’ is silly,” says Kathy Lynn, a Vancouver-based parenting expert, author of Who’s In Charge Anyway? (Whitecap Books) and mom of two.
When your child reacts negatively to a loss, Russell suggests giving him some time and space. “You’re not going to be able to teach him how to be a good loser in that very moment,” he says, adding that, while you shouldn’t let him break a board game, you don’t need to comment on a tantrum. If the loss happens in a sports game and your seven-year-old is ranting about a bad call later on in your car, Russell says sympathy is key.
“Now is not the time to teach. Try to focus on the sentiment rather than his actual words. He’s upset, frustrated, disappointed.” And leave the lessons about trash-talking for another time. “There will be plenty of time in the future to make sure he is respectful to refs and supportive of teammates,” he says.
While some parents may want to help a child understand why he lost by doing a post-game play-by-play, that’s the role of the coach. (Parent coaches need to remember to take their coach hats off when they get in the car.) “If there’s a time to be more actively involved in teaching and coaching, it’s when your child is clearly wanting and/or appreciating it,” says Russell.
Whether playing a board game or a friendly round of street hockey, it’s important for children to experience losses at home— and not just once in a blue moon, says Lynn. Playing games at home lets parents model sportsmanship and ensures kids have a chance to know what losing feels like before the stakes get bigger, such as on the soccer pitch.
Lynn suggests parents “level the playing field” by giving a child a couple of extra dice rolls in a game, for example, so they win as often as they lose. That way, children don’t have the false expectation that they’ll win most of the time.
It’s also a good idea to prepare children ahead of time, at home, for losses on the field, says Lynn. “You can do some role play. You can say ‘The other team may win; how are you going to handle it if you lose?’” She suggests children practise saying “Good game” to others, for example.
Russell and Lynn both emphasize that it’s important not to rush in too quickly with a sad face and a “There, there” comment. That’s because children may be okay with a loss until a parent’s reaction suggests they should be upset. When you’re waiting outside the hockey change room or in the soccer field parking lot, give your child a chance to talk about the game first, Lynn recommends.
She remembers driving her son, then about 10, and two of his friends home from a football game they had lost badly. Lynn says she was ready to console them, but when they got into the car they were talking excitedly about plays they were proud of. “Kids sometimes don’t care that much until they see how their parents are acting.”
Wendy Glauser is a Toronto-based journalist who learned how to lose early on thanks to three siblings and two left feet.