Playing Fair: Teaching Your Child Good Sportsmanship

The child-development professionals at Celebree Learning Centers discuss the importance of good sportsmanship for your children and key practices that can help develop this trait.

Before you give your child a time-out for throwing a fit because of a lost game, it’s critical to realize that your child is just beginning to comprehend what it really means to lose or win. For a 3- or 4-year-old, the world is slightly more cut and dry. When children are playing to win, they believe that the end result will be a reflection of their efforts, making it extremely difficult to accept a loss.

Based on the Creative Curriculum which guides the Developmental Milestones, toddlers moving into Kindergarten Readiness should be able to begin to demonstrate concern about the feelings of others, express feelings during a conflict and begin to seek adult help to resolve social problems. Show your child that playing means having fun– a loss does not mean they are “bad” and a win does not mean they are “good.”  Losing well is a challenge for all ages, so here are some easy ideas to help your child learn to lose like a true winner.

1. Bursts of emotion. If a harmless board game quickly turns from quiet play to tears, it’s important that you keep your cool. Your preschooler has not yet grasped how to articulate his or her feelings in a constructive way, so it’s easier to express physically rather than verbally. Calmly remove your child from the situation and put the game aside. Once your child has calmed down, talk about why he or she felt so distressed by helping them to match words with feelings. As you are doing so, begin to compliment his or her strong suits. Say something such as, “I understand why you are upset that you did not win this time, but you did such a great job counting your numbers earlier…”

It may also be beneficial to shift the focus of playing against someone to playing with someone. Keep in mind that the best way to help your child is leading by example. If you play a video game or sport against your spouse, be a respectable loser and resist arrogance if you win. If your child does act out, let them know that they’re not expressing helpful behavior, but rather hurtful behavior.

2. Manipulation of play. Your child may begin to understand what it means to “cheat.” For example, they may pretend that they did not have their turn, or may try to make up a new set of rules. Children at this age typically expect things to work out in their favor. Consequently, when things don’t turn out how they wish, it seems “unfair.”

Remind your child of the expectations once a game begins, especially when it with luck – a concept extremely difficult for a 3-or 4-year-old to grasp. Explain that winning and losing has absolutely nothing to do with skill in some instances. If your child gets angry at his or her playmate during a game, do not reprimand them while the friend watches. Instead, pull your child aside and ask, “How do you think Jordan feels right now? Would you like it if Jordan did that to you?” Soon, your child will realize that playing by the rules will help to keep the peace and allow everyone to enjoy the game.

3. Sore winners. The goal of the game is to learn and have fun, not to win every game. Otherwise, your preschooler may become so consumed with winning that they turn everyday doings into a race or a battle. You may be inadvertently encouraging this attitude by prompting your children in saying, “Who can finish cleaning their room first?” or “First one to brush their teeth wins.” Instead, try focusing on other aspects of the activity or task. Praise the positive behavior.

When your child shares a story with you about a game on the playground, rather than asking who won, you can ask if your child had fun, made new friends or what their favorite part of the game was. Discuss the opportunities of growth with your child, rather than focusing on the win-lose outcome.

4. Overprotecting your players. Letting your child win the game every time you play together will only encourage an unrealistic expectation that they will always come in first. It’s important for children to understand what it feels like to grow and improve from the bottom. Think of games as practice for other aspects of life such as social situations or using critical thinking to solve every day puzzles.

Letting your child lose from time to time teaches him or her to be resilient and adaptable when facing unfavorable outcomes. If your child is falling behind in a game, there’s no harm in giving them advice on how to improve, and follow that up by modelling.

Whether you’re the type of parent who enjoys a friendly game of chess or the type who would do almost anything not to give up the football on the field, it’s important for your children to learn what it means to be a strong loser, a fair winner and a great teammate. By following these simple steps, your child can stay on track for Kindergarten Readiness and continue to grow and develop into an intelligent and unique child prepared for any activity, task or game.