How can I raise a gracious loser?

While it’s perfectly natural for your child to be disappointed when she loses something she’s worked hard for, like the championship soccer game, it is important for her to learn to accept loss without feelings of bitterness or low self-esteem. A child who doesn’t learn to lose graciously has a hard time making friends and is often frustrated by failures. Here are some ways to encourage a sourpuss to sweeten up.

  • Play on your child’s sense of empathy. At this age, she’s starting to develop the ability to put herself in another person’s place. She can now begin to understand that getting angry when she doesn’t win hurts the feelings of the people she’s playing with. Ask her to think about how it would feel if someone got angry at her when she did something she was proud of. Tell her that it’s okay to be sad about losing, but she should try not to hurt others because of it.
  • Play cooperative games. Noncompetitive games eliminate winning and losing altogether and help your child learn what it’s like to play on a team. Try hitting a balloon back and forth, or play a game of Chinese checkers in which the idea is to get your marbles on her side and hers on your side at roughly the same time. As children get older, they will have to start playing with teammates to accomplish a common goal, and cooperative games give them a great foundation for this.
  • Emphasize effort, skill, and fun. It’s trite but true: “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” Your job is to get your child to take this adage to heart. After she plays a game with a friend, ask, “Did you have a good time?” instead of “Who won?” Offer praise for anything done well, no matter how small it may seem. The more you can get your child thinking about developing the skills needed to be a good player — regardless of the outcome — the less important winning becomes.
  • Teach your child how to win and lose well. Show her what it means to be a good winner and a good loser. Tell her that good winners don’t brag about victories or make fun of another player’s skills. And help her become a good loser by giving her opportunities to lose as she plays against you. It seems harsh, but she’ll never learn the skill if she doesn’t practice it. Most important, don’t let her see you being a poor sport. Take your losses well, and always congratulate the winner.

If your child regularly “loses it” when she loses, you might need to take a break from game playing altogether. Turn the focus to other areas of her life that she can feel good about. And teach her that mistakes are okay by not reacting harshly when she makes one. For example, instead of getting angry about a bad grade in school, talk about what she can do to do better. In time, you should see some improvement.

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Parenting: Don’t Praise Your Children!

Let’s start with the purpose of praise: to encourage children to continue to engage in positive behaviors that produce positive outcomes. Now you can start to see the problems with “good job!” First, it lacks specificity. It doesn’t tell children what precisely they did well and without that information they can’t know exactly what they should do in the future to get the same outcome. Second, “good job!” focuses on the outcome rather than the process. If you’re going to be lazy with your praise, at least say, “Good effort!” because it focuses them on what they did to do a good job.

Unfortunately, many parents have been misguided by the “self-esteem movement,” which has told them that the way to build their children’s self-esteem is to tell them how good they are at things. Unfortunately, trying to convince your children of their competence will likely fail because life has a way of telling them unequivocally how capable or incapable they really are through success and failure.

The reality is that children don’t need to be told “good job!” when they have done something well; it’s self-evident. They do need to be told why they did well so they can replicate that behavior in the future to get the same positive outcome.

Research has shown that how you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development. The Columbia University researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as compared to their effort, became overly focused on results. Following a failure, these same children persisted less, showed less enjoyment, attributed their failure to a lack of ability (which they believed they could not change), and performed poorly in future achievement efforts. Says Dweck: “Praising children for intelligence makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity.”

Too much praise of any sort can also be unhealthy. Research has found that students who were lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, was less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.

Children develop a sense of competence by seeing the consequences of their actions, not by being told about the consequences of their actions. The researchers Mueller and Dweck found that children who were praised for their effort showed more interest in learning, demonstrated greater persistence and more enjoyment, attributed their failure to lack of effort (which they believed they could change), and performed well in subsequent achievement activities. Rewarding effort also encouraged them to work harder and to seek new challenges. Adds the Clark University researcher Wendy Grolnick: “Parental encouragement of learning strategies helps children build a sense of personal responsibility for control over-their academic careers.”

Based on these findings, you should avoid praising your children about areas over which they have no control. This includes any innate and unalterable ability such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, or athletic or artistic gifts. You should direct your praise to areas over which your children have control-effort, attitude, responsibility, commitment, discipline, focus, decision making, compassion, generosity, respect, love, the list goes on. You should look at why exactly your children did something well and specifically praise those areas. For example, “You worked so hard preparing for this test,” “You were so focused during the entire chess match,” and “You were so generous for sharing with your sister.”

Particularly with young children, you don’t need to praise them at all. The best thing you can do is simply highlight what they did. For example, if your toddler just climbed a playground ladder for the first time, just say, “You climbed that ladder by yourself.” Their smile of pride will tell you that they got the message you wanted them to get, namely, “I did it!” Nothing more needs to be said.

As another alternative to praise, just ask your children questions. You can find out what your children thought and felt about their achievement, for example, “What did you enjoy most about your performance?” and “How do you feel about what you just did?” Allow your children to decide for themselves how they feel about their accomplishments, enable them to reward themselves for their own good actions, and encourage them to internalize what they observed about their own achievement efforts.

Or really go out on a limb and don’t say anything at all to your children. As I just mentioned, kids know when they do well. By letting them come to this realization on their own, they learn to reinforce themselves and they don’t become praise junkies dependent on you for how they feel about their efforts and accomplishments.

Here is my challenge to you. First, next time you’re at the playground or a youth sports competition, take note of what parents say to their children. I’ll bet you hear “Good job!” (or some variation) constantly. Next, monitor what you say to your children in the same situations. Then, erase “Good job!” from your vocabulary. We’ve already established how useless it is. Finally, start to praise your children in the healthy ways I just described. When you have broken yourself of the “Good job!” habit, you can then pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “Good job!”

psychologytoday.com