If your child puts up a fight when he's not in first place, these smart moves will teach him to play fair.
score card
Credit: 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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The Penalty: Foul Play

Preschoolers may try to manipulate the situation so they can win -- they'll pretend they didn't get a turn, make up a new set of rules, or accuse a friend of cheating. And kids this age typically expect things to work in their favor, which makes it seem like something or somebody's "not fair" when they don't win. This can be especially challenging when other children and their feelings are involved. "Three- and 4-year-olds are just learning empathy and may not realize when they hurt their friend's feelings," says Ann Densmore, Ed.D, coauthor of Your Successful Preschooler: Ten Skills Children Need to Become Confident and Socially Engaged. Remember that each mistake your kid makes is an opportunity to reinforce social behavior, such as taking turns and following a game's rules.

Your Move It's a good idea to remind your child of expectations at the beginning of a game, especially games that are all about luck -- a concept that can be hard for 3- and 4-year-olds to understand. Explain that winning or losing has nothing to do with skill. For a game like Chutes and Ladders, you could say, "Even if you're winning, remember that your next roll can always send you all the way down the slide. It's important that we all follow the rules as we go along, take turns, and play nicely together." If he does get mad at his friend or make up rules, don't jump on him with his buddy watching. Pull him aside and say, "How do you think James feels that you're not playing fair? Would you like it if he called you a cheater?" He'll soon realize that playing by the rules will help make everyone happier.

The Penalty: Excessive Celebration

The main goal of a game should be fun and learning, not win, win, win! You might feel like your preschooler is obsessed with winning to the point that she turns everyday activities and chores into a competition ("Who can finish their cereal first?"). Try to temper this "I win" and "I'm best" mentality by talking about other aspects of a game than the scoreboard.

Your Move Change how you discuss the outcome of activities. When your child tells you that she and her classmates had a race across the playground, don't ask, "Did you win?" Instead say, "Did you have fun?" or "Did you make new friends?" With this shift in focus, you teach your child that it's not all about the end product, but the whole process, says Dr. Middlemiss. You can also comment on how a specific skill of hers, like running faster or counting to a high number, keeps improving regardless of a game's outcome. And when she does lose, talk about the fun she had. ("Amy won that game of 'Simon says,' but it was so funny when you had to tickle your toes!") That helps set up the game in a way that winning isn't everything.

The Penalty: Protected Players

Letting your child win at tic-tac-toe every time you play the game together will just set him up with an unrealistic expectation that he can come first in everything, every time, says Dr. Middlemiss. Kids need to learn what it feels like to come out on the bottom as well as on top, and there are valuable lessons from both. "Games are practice for other things in life, be it solving problems or social interactions," says Dr. Kutner.

Your Move Letting your child lose teaches him to be flexible and resilient and to cope with disappointment. But if he is falling behind in a game, it's okay to give him advice on how to play better in the future -- just be sure to keep it simple and focus on one strategy at a time. "Preschoolers can start to learn that if they don't like the outcome of a game that's based on skill or strategy, they have control over changing it next time," says Dr. Middlemiss. So, instead of dominating the game of tic-tac-toe, try suggesting a better move if you see he's setting himself up for second place. Next time, maybe he'll realize that he can win by putting his X's or O's in the corner instead of the center.

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