Sore Loser: Teach Kids Good Sportsmanship

If your child puts up a fight when he's not in first place, these smart moves will teach him to play fair.
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Lucy Schaeffer

Nobody likes to lose. And preschoolers will show you just how much they hate losing by breaking down into sobs when their classmate wins first place in the Halloween-costume contest or by storming off in frustration when a sibling trumps them at "Go fish." Before you give your second-place Candy Land opponent a time-out for his tantrum, it's important to realize that he's just beginning to understand what it really means to win or lose. "For a 3- or 4-year-old, the world is very black and white," explains Wendy Middlemiss, Ph.D., associate professor of education psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton. "Preschoolers tend to think that if they play to win, then they should win, and that makes it hard to come to terms with losing."

The goal is to show your child that you're playing to have fun -- and that winning doesn't equal being good and losing doesn't equal being bad. And the sooner you start, the sooner you can stop worrying that other kids won't want to play with your child if he's a sore loser. Losing gracefully can be a hard lesson to teach, but there are simple tips to help your child learn to lose like a champ.

The Penalty: Unsportsmanlike Conduct

If a simple game of cards turns into tears, screams of "I hate this," and an impromptu 52 Pickup, try to keep your cool. "Kids this age express their emotions physically rather than verbally; they cry, they kick, and they punch," says psychologist Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an educational foundation in Lansdowne, Virginia. "Your preschooler hasn't figured out how to express all her strong feelings in words yet, and so she needs your help learning how to articulate her emotions verbally," says Dr. Kutner.

Your Move Calmly put the game away and remove your child from the situation. Once her emotions have quieted down, talk about why she felt so upset by putting words to her feelings, and try to praise other mini victories or successes she's had during the day. You might say, "I can see you're disappointed you didn't win this time around, but you did such a good job putting together that Batman puzzle this morning." If your preschooler's temper continues to flare, suggest a just-for-fun game that involves accomplishment instead of winning, like building a fort out of boxes or hitting a ball together. This will help shift the focus from playing against someone to playing with someone -- a great tool for calming the "big bro always wins" situation. And practice what you preach. If you're challenging your husband to a game of tennis on the Wii, no trash-talking: Be a good loser and resist showing off if you win.

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