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A Sore Loser

What to do when your child loves competition but can’t handle losing.
 

Learning Benefits

Hover over each Learning Benefit below for a detailed explanation.
Cooperation
Compromise
Self Control

THE PARENT’S STORY

I had just asked our three boys to clear the table when Ian, my youngest, shouted, “Wait, Mommy — we have to find the wishbone!” Everyone stared down at their plates to see if the lucky bone from our chicken dinner had ended up there, but I secretly hoped it wouldn’t be found intact. It had been a nice, quiet evening so far, with no explosions on Ian’s part about not “winning” something. Ian has two bright, sturdy older brothers, so naturally he always feels like he loses at everything. He certainly can’t run as fast, throw a Frisbee as far, or even come out on top in many games of chance. Maybe some kids his age wouldn’t try so hard or care so much, but with Ian, hope never fades. “This time,” he seems to say to himself before almost every contest, “I am going to win.” I told the kids that Ian and I would break the bone if we found it, but he knew I’d let him win and would have none of it. Instead, he wanted to go at it with his oldest brother, his toughest opponent.

Luckily, no wishbone was found. Thinking about several recent Ian meltdowns, I was greatly relieved. The sad thing is that he regularly cajoles the older boys and me into playing games with him because he loves to compete, even though he can’t stand to lose. He’s a glutton for punishment, especially when he invites the boys to race. He has to know his odds by now. Every loss ends with an explosion that we all have to deal with, and it has become tiresome. I wish I knew a way to get Ian and our whole family out of this rut.

 

THE TEACHER’S STORY

A game of musical chairs is great for most kids in my group on a rainy day, but it’s risky with Ian. He goes bonkers over losing at this or any other competitive game. I can’t avoid these activities entirely just because of him, so I decided to give it a try. But when Ian was left as the last child standing, he became terribly upset and stormed into the corner.

And yet, he is not unreasonable in other circumstances. In fact, he has a good sense of humor, often compliments other children’s art projects or outfits, and he’s generally a cooperative, fun playmate. Though our program is certainly not heavy on competitive activity, we do play sports games like kickball in gym. Ian, of course, stomps off the field and kicks dirt on the sidelines if he is called out. I wish there were something I could do to help this child accept the fact that losing gracefully is an important part of playing games.

 

DOCTOR’S ASSESSMENT

Although Ian’s refusal to lose may be related to having two competent older brothers, we can’t assign the blame solely to birth order. Some children in the same situation would avoid competitive activities, turning instead to very different, possibly quiet interests. That’s not Ian’s style. He apparently has a competitive drive, so calming him down and diverting him require patience and ingenuity on the part of the teacher and his parents.

 

WHAT IAN’S PARENTS CAN DO

It won’t be easy, but Ian’s parents should consider making a major change in family activities. Eliminate or put off those that place the youngest child in the position of “highly probable loser.” Instead, promote cooperative projects, such as building a fort or planning a holiday celebration. For New Year’s Eve, for example, Ian can make colorful decorations for a family dinner, while the older boys might join their dad in shopping for groceries. In short, all family members can work together toward the same goal. Many everyday activities fit the same bill. Gardening, for example, lends itself to both cooperative effort and individual achievement. Ian might have his own special rose bush to nurture, as well as a contribution to make in the weeding and watering of communal family plantings. In all of these ventures and others, the parents should be alert to each child’s special interests to make sure everyone can exercise their independence while simultaneously practicing their cooperation skills.

 

WHAT IAN’S TEACHER CAN DO

As Ian’s teacher has observed, there is more to know about Ian than his passion for competition. At least for a while, the teacher should avoid competitive games like musical chairs that bring out the worst worries of this child. Instead, she can try giving Ian a special assignment, like making him the official welcomer when a new child enters the group. Ian apparently has a gift for making others feel comfortable and appreciated — and what a gift that is. If he has shown a particular interest and/or talent in art, music, or storytelling, the teacher can encourage him to focus on those activities and praise his good behavior. The teacher can reintroduce competitive activities in small doses. More importantly, increasing Ian’s opportunities to engage in cooperative tasks at home and at school will help him feel better about himself — giving him less reason to focus on the issue of winning versus losing.

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