Cultivating Healthy Competition Between Children

I decided to pull out a board game this morning for a little family fun. That’s right folks! For the first time ever I introduced my children, who are four, six, and eight years old,  to SORRY!. Possibly the most unfair game of chance on the planet. Mostly because of the extreme lack of predictability and the fact that at any moment you could be bumped or switched back to your start with nothing to do about it but scream, “AHHHH! NO FAIR!” at the top of your lungs. We’ve all been there. You’re rushing toward the finish line and then someone pulls the SORRY! card and yells “OHHHHHH,” and you’re back to your start space before you can fully comprehend what has just happened to your poor defenseless pawn.

As a child I distinctly remember my blood boiling as I sat there stewing because now in order to even get back out onto the board I’d have to draw a 1, 2, or a SORRY! card and little Jimmy Winsalot already had two pawns on his home space. I saw these emotions of frustration and dismay cross my children’s faces this morning more than once and decided to let it play out; feeling pretty proud of myself for actually enjoying the competitive spirit going around the table. “Wow! I’m such an adult,” I thought to myself.

As the game progressed it was looking more and more like I was going to win and all three of my children were pressing to, “take me out.” Such beautiful words coming from your sweet six year old daughters mouth, “Take her out! Take her out! She’s winning!” I can see my four year old is irritated beyond belief because she has two pawns on home and two pawns still on start and she keeps pulling an 11. But she’s not saying a word. I, on the other hand am dancing a victory dance on the inside because, let’s face it, every parent secretly enjoys stomping their kids in a friendly game of SORRY!.

Then it happened, my son finally pulled a 2 and his first pawn entered the board.  At this point I only needed to get one more pawn home and I would win. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how he did it but he suddenly had 3 pawns on his home space and I was still fighting to get my last one around the board. The girls were still stuck with their last two pawns on start and I knew it would be a race between my son and myself. Getting excited I leaned forward and drew a card that landed me right at the base of the “safe zone.” On my son’s next turn he did the same and now we both sat only 5 spaces away from victory; It was anyone’s game.

I pull a 10, too many; my heart drops into my butt, I know he’s going to win. My four year old pulls another 11 and grunts in frustration. My six year old pulls a seven and rolls her eyes. I look at my son, who’s turn it is, and say, “You need to pull a 5 to win.” He pulls his card and turns it over. Everyone starts screaming. The little booger has pulled a 5! I knew it! Seriously the most intense game of SORRY! I have ever played. He’s so ecstatic about winning and I’m so busy throwing high fives in his direction that I don’t immediately notice that my innocent little four year old is just blubbering away at my left. Climbing into my lap and shoving her face into my shirt she yells, “You didn’t let me win!,” and continues to soak my shirt with her tears.

As a parent who is holding a sobbing child you have to think quickly. How do I react to this? What is the best way to handle the situation? Do I give in and suggest playing until everyone makes it to the home space? Do I tell her to suck it up because sometimes people loose? Do I just let her cry? All of these things went racing through my mind. I had to stop and ask myself how I would want her to react in the future. The answer came easily. I wanted her to feel the way I did about losing. I wanted her to be happy for the winner, to be happy to have played the game, and be excited to try again next time.

What I didn’t want was for her to grow up thinking that because she participated in the game she had a right to win and if someone else wins she had a right to a prize just for participating. Sorry; not sorry. The mentality that children shouldn’t be subjected to the pain of losing a game or any competition or that they should get a prize even if they lost is a hugely underestimated contributor to the entitlement issues we see today in our youth. It is so important that we teach our children to cultivate healthy competitive relationships and comradery amongst their peers. But how do we do that when every source of parental advice today seems to point us in the other direction?

There is a scene in Finding Nemo between Dory and Marlin that I absolutely adore. It goes like this:

Marlin: “I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.”

Dory: “What a funny thing to promise.”

Marlin: “What?”

Dory: “Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.”

With that in mind I realize that losing isn’t always a good feeling. But, when you teach your children from a young age to turn their perspectives toward the positive feelings you get by lifting up your opponents in celebration of their victory they soon realize it feels much better to be happy for the winner than it does to ruin the winner’s moment with their own feelings of jealousy over losing. So here are some tips to help your little ones learn to be good competitors and to avoid being sore losers.

  1. Make sure they understand the rules of the game and how it works before you begin playing.
  2. Celebrate little victories throughout the game. (i.e. “Yay! you made it out of the starting circle!” or “OMG! You just bumped them back to start! Great job!”)
  3. When a victor is proclaimed respond how you would want your child to respond.
  4. Avoid codling. I know it’s hard because you don’t want to see your child crying, but the tears will pass and they will soon realize they worked through that emotion and are alright if given the chance to work it out within themselves on their own.
  5. Don’t give in to the temptation to let them win next time or to suggest continuing to play the current game (That has ended) until they win too. Not only does this dumb down their intelligence but it makes them think that they have a right to win which is a dangerous and unhealthy way of thinking. I see people in our society today who absolutely believe that they have a right to whatever someone else has with no valid reason for their thought process. I see kids being asked why they stole something and the answer every time, without fail is, “Because I wanted it.” This line of thinking in our children can have serious ramifications for their future.
  6. Do NOT immediately play another game.  That’s right, I said it. Take a break. Why? Because your child needs to sit with the feeling that losing the game gave them and to realize that they survived not having won. They need to feel compelled to win again because they know they can and not because they feel like they are entitled to. If you play another game right away it takes away from that learning moment and now becomes an unhealthy and often times unfriendly game that is no fun for anyone. Your child will survive. I promise. After about 5 minutes of absolute frustration at losing and me sticking to my guns that she needed to be a good sport my four year old turned to my son and said, “That’s okay! I’ll kick your butt next time!” She then turned on her heel and went to find her baby doll. Perfectly content to let the matter drop.
  7. The hardest one; correct unsportsmen like conduct immediately. Don’t let it continue or ignore it. Make a point of showing them your disappointment at their bad behavior. Explain why your are disappointed and then demonstrate the best way to congratulate the winning player or team.

Let’s get back to a place of healthy competitive relationships and a spirit of comradery between our children. We have to stop giving our children entitlement issues just because we don’t like to hear them crying or because it’s easier to just give in and move on to something else instead of taking the time to correct their behavior and teach them the right way.

Get out a board game. Play individually and on teams. Show them that you are okay with losing and they can be too. Praise their accomplishments and teach them to keep going even if their egos are bruised. It’s a part of life. When they are adults no one is going to hold their hands or run around behind them with a pot under their asses catching all of their emotional baggage. We have to teach them young how to deal with the world as an adult. Trust me, under all of those crocodile tears and hurt feelings is a perfectly capable little being who is, quite frankly, less phased by losing than you are by their spectacularly executed reaction to it.


© Sunnie Johnson



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