Win or Lose: Teach Your Child to Play with Grace

three girls sitting on the floor playing board game Sinking Stones by Skillmatics

For kids, games are a big deal. Whether your little one loves hide-and-seek, tag, or a favorite board game - winning can make their day and losing can feel like the end of the world. From a young age, it’s important to instill kindness, humility, and grace in your child so that win or lose, they can appreciate games and the people they play them with.

For starters, recognizing bad behavior is critical to stopping it in its tracks. Watch your child when they win a game: do they make fun of the people who lost or brag about how well they played? What about when they lose? Do they claim other players are cheating or quit because the game isn’t going their way? Yelling and crying are signs of a sore loser, while teasing and taunting opponents is the calling card of a bad winner. While some of these actions may be amusing at first, they can develop into a cycle of hurtful behavior. In these situations, it’s important to do three things right away:

  • Address your child’s reactions gently
  • Take their feelings seriously 
  • Direct them to handle their emotions in a healthier way
Little girl in a red top smiling at mother who is talking to her

A great way to practice being a kind winner and loser is by having regularly scheduled family game nights. Beyond having fun playing a variety of games, family game nights ensure your little one develops social-emotional skills they can use in any situation. Playing at home with family also allows your children to practice dealing with big and sometimes unpleasant feelings in a comfortable and familiar place.  

Below are some tips for teaching your kid to be a kind winner and a graceful loser at your next family game night.

1. Showcase Good Sportsmanship

Father, mother and two sons in striped blue t-shirts playing with joysticks, smiling and laughing

The best way to instill positive winning and losing habits in your little one is by modeling good behavior. That means complimenting others, refraining from bragging or complaining, voicing your appreciation for being able to play the game, and offering to help clean up once play is over.  Be mindful of not just the way you speak, but also your body language: try not to laugh when someone makes a mistake or pout when you make one yourself, as little ones are very perceptive.

2. Validate Emotions

Little girl in a purple t-shirt and aviator glasses sitting and playing pretend with an airplane with her mother

Losing can bring up feelings of sadness, disappointment, and frustration, but if you teach your child to identify these feelings, you will find that they are far less likely to act on them. Talk about how it can feel sad and embarrassing to lose, and share a story of a time you felt those emotions after losing a game. Also make it clear that they have options for how to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

Often, children who aren’t used to losing can experience a fit of rage that can manifest in a number of ways, including throwing game pieces or calling others mean names. If this happens, it’s important to give your child tools to help them calm down in the future. For example, encourage them to take deep breaths or take a second to walk away from the situation that’s upsetting them. Having these discussions with your little one will help them develop healthy coping strategies to deal with whatever game of life they play.

3. Don’t Let Them Win

Little girl in baby pink t-shirt cheering for winning the game and mother laughing

It can be tempting to make things go more smoothly by letting your child win the games you play together. Although your intentions may be good, doing so  can cause more harm than good as it will deprive your child of the opportunity to learn to be a graceful loser. At the same time, it's important to play games your little one can win fair and square. Winning helps kids build confidence and experience a sense of achievement. You might find that family game nights can improve your child’s self-esteem as they spend time with people they love and develop their own skills. Try to find games fit for your child’s skill level or age group that provide an achievable challenge for your little one to beat with practice. 

4. Focus on the Positives

African man hugging and tickling son, laughing. Both are wearing white overalls

While playing your child’s favorite game, make sure to point out what went well! Positive reinforcement works well not just when your child models good behavior, but also when they achieve something, whether executing super strategic play in Sinking Stones, or correctly guessing a difficult animal in Guess in 10, or correctly guessing a difficult animal in. Make sure to be specific about where they excelled, too, so they can replicate and build on it the next time.

When your child loses, help them focus on the positive! Make sure to still point out what went well and remind them that it means they’ll have more practice for the next time they play.  For younger players, choose shorter games with high replay value to remind them that there’s always another chance right around the corner!

Beyond being just plain fun, family game nights also play the important role of introducing your child to competitive situations. Whether they’re learning a new skill within the game or finding out how to react with kindness - game nights are a great way to teach your child best practices for the real world.

In the end, remind your child that games are fun ways to try new challenges and connect with other people. Even if your little one is having some trouble with winning and losing, it's never too late or early to guide them to handle those situations better and be the best that they can be no matter the outcome of the game.