Why Do Kids Suck So Bad at Losing? – Frontline Dad11 min read
I played in my local Beer League hockey Championship game for the first time the other night. We’ve had a good team for several years but had never made it to the Big Game. We did not win. It sucked. We played well, made a great comeback at the end of the game, went to overtime, and then lost on a tricky puck that somehow found its way behind the goal line. The other team rushed out onto the ice to celebrate as our crew head to the benches, collected our gear, and dejectedly went to the bleachers to change. It was a crappy feeling to lose like that. And then, after a couple minutes, I got over it. Why? Because I’m 38 years old, play in the lowest level of hockey our rink has to offer, and play for fun, not for championships in a league that literally matters to exactly no one outside of the dudes and gals on the ice.
To tell the truth, I believe my daughter was more upset that we lost than I was. When I texted my wife that we had lost the game, she said our 5 year old immediately burst into tears and cried that she was so sad we had lost and were no longer in the Championship game. She took it rough. Which made me wonder: Why are kids so freakin’ bad at losing? I am as competitive as they come. I literally was not satisfied with anything short of becoming one of the pre-eminent soldiers the U.S. military had to offer. I’m not really sure there is anything more competitive than that. But as a father, I have always taught my child that it is perfectly fine not to win; that winning comes secondary to the hard work and effort one puts into whatever they are doing; and that competition is about doing something you enjoy and love to do. Winning will come and you can enjoy it, but losing is a part of the deal. What does a child think about that? ? (That’s really suppose to be a middle finger but WordPress doesn’t offer that in their emoji list, so the thumbs down is my daughter’s go-to for anything she doesn’t like).
Here’s my working theory. Kids have an innate ability to demand perfection from themselves in everything that they do? Why? Well, because of parents. We tell them on a day to day basis that they “can do whatever you set your mind to”. When it comes to competition, what do they set their mind to? Winning of course. Therefore, since we constantly reinforce to them that they can and will do anything they want, then winning should be assured. Losing does not enter their mind. Seriously, when do we as parents ever ask our kids “What if you don’t win?” We don’t.
“Hey, wanna race?” is a common refrain my daughter uses with her friends or even those she just met. She loves to run. She has always been tall, and those long legs of hers have always carried her farther and faster than most of her counterparts. Racing and winning has been a way of her early life. She rarely meets kids her age that can outrun her. It is ingrained in her that due to her size and speed, she will win. I have never once told her that she needs to win a race. But she has been told countless times by so many that “wow, you’re fast” which equates to “I am the fastest and should always be the fastest.” Anything less than that is abject failure, because, well, she can do whatever she wants that she puts her mind to.
It’s nonsensical of course because we adults know that there are obviously inherent setbacks that go towards our success, but for a five year old, it makes perfect sense. Which is why when she matches up against older kids who are actually her size, but have more experience and better technique, and they beat her in a race or a game of tag, her disappointment comes out in bitter rage and disgust that she did not succeed. She’ll yell, she’ll cry, she’ll whine. She can get down on herself and sometimes she chooses one of two paths: she decides to quit and no longer participate; or she digs in and tries again in an effort to prove that she is the fastest and best (it’s here that I would like to put all the blame on this on Rainbow Dash, whom Olivia has modeled her entire racing approach after, as she use to run constantly around the house attempting her Sonic Rainboom and being the fastest pony ever).
Now some might say the quitting approach is the wrong approach. And as an adult I’d say, “Yea, we’re not going to be quitting today.” However, I actually believe there is some merit to it. Put yourself in a 5 year old’s shoes. From their perspective, they have been disappointed, bested, defeated. The feeling is insurmountable. It sucks. I could explain to her that losing is just part of life, we all lose, losing builds character, blah blah blah. She’s 5. She doesn’t give one crap about any of that anecdotal nonsense from 25 years ago in my life. All she knows is right then, right there, losing sucks and she doesn’t want to feel that way anymore. I could yell at her and tell her to get back out there and try again. But that’s only because it is what I would do today. Yet walking away and doing something different helps take the sting of loss away immediately. She’ll be able to focus on a new task to take her mind off it and in turn, do something else that makes her happy.
The other thing to keep in mind is, just how important is it to her to go out there and race around and win one race against some kids she may never play with again at the park? She may be mad that she lost, but is it really that important to her in the long run? Probably not. So if she walks away from it and says “I don’t want to do this anymore today” then so what? She has demonstrated time and time again that she is still going to go back out there eventually and race other kids or run around and play tag with them or look for the best hiding spot, even if she ends up on the losing side.
So why does she scream that she doesn’t want to do ‘this’ anymore? Well, my belief is that she is looking for a cooling off period to deal with the stress. We teach our kids that if they are in a situation where things become too much, if they are getting stressed out or upset, then they should take a break, walk away, cool down, and then come back to it when they are ready. Yet when it comes to competition, we tell them as soon as they lose or fail or demonstrate they can’t quite handle adversity the way we think they should, that they should immediately go back out there and give it another go. We completely ignore the stress they are putting upon themselves and want them to revisit it again and again, in the name of “doing your best” and “we aren’t quitting today”. Even though our children are telling us in their own way that they need a break, that they can’t handle this situation right at that moment and they need to walk away. We chastise them many a times for this, yet I know with my child that it does absolutely no good and ends up with meltdowns and tears and doors slamming. The thing is, they are doing what we expect of them, if we just pay close enough attention.
I preach communication regularly with my daughter. I tell her that it is vital to tell people how you are feeling about a situation and what your expectations are. If someone is bothering you, I tell her to let them know how their behavior is making her feel and what she wants them to do. If a friend is pushing her too hard, she will say “I am mad at you right now, you are pushing me too much and I don’t like it. Stop it.” I hear her say this, clearly and loudly so there is no mistake. I applaud her for this behavior. So when she is outside trying to shoot baskets at the hoop but isn’t finding much success, she will say “I hate this. I can’t make any baskets. I am mad at this and don’t want to do it anymore.” She is clearly communicating her feelings, why she feels that way, and what she is going to do. How can I get mad at that and expect her to keep doing something that is clearly frustrating her and making her lose enjoyment. She isn’t being a bad loser, but I have no doubt if I sat there and continued to pry at her that she must keep trying, then she would get even more mad as the misses piled up and eventually she would just walk away, pissed off, angry, never to come back to it. Or I could accept her feelings, let her quit and walk away, and then see her come back 5 minutes later on her own to make multiple basket in a row and now ecstatic at her success. This is why I believe the 100% culprit to kids “quitting” is actually just kids who are pissed off at their parents and don’t want to keep doing those things just to spite them!
My daughter can kick my ass at most board games. She beats me constantly in Candyland. I’ve never beaten her at a game called Zingo (kinda like Bingo but way more fun). She always wins Pop the Pig. And not in the “oh dad is going to let her move ahead a few extra spaces or pick the card she wants” type of way. She legitimately beats me in these games. But when we play Chutes and Ladders, I usually end up beating her. And she does not take it well. She’ll end up quitting, saying the game is boring and it’s no fun. Do I remind her of all the times she has beaten me at those other games? Of course I do. Does she give a rat’s ass? Of course not, because those games were in the past and have nothing to do with the feelings she is having right at this moment. And those feelings are pretty shitty. Reason does not work at those moments for a kindergartner. So if she decides “that’s it, I’m done” then all I say is “Alright well help me clean up.” And she does. And we move on. And you know what, the next time I ask her if she wants to play Chutes and Ladders, she usually agrees to it. She’ll give it another go, when SHE decides she is ready. Did she lose anything by not continuing to get beat in a game that was frustrating her? Not a damn thing. She acknowledged she was beat, recognized she was no longer enjoying herself, knew she was getting stressed, and wanted to find a way to keep herself calm and away from a shitty situation. It would have been counterproductive to force her to keep playing a game she was starting to hate, already mad about because things weren’t going to her expectations, and see someone else succeed at her expense. As she continues to get older and more mature, she will learn to get a little further each time and gain the coping strategies to handle being in a losing situation. But she won’t learn them all at this age.
I use to think my daughter could not handle losing well and that she was just overreacting. Then not longer ago a friend of hers came over and they played a game together. Her friend had demonstrated numerous times that he was a superior video game player, so he had a leg up on her on something. He wanted to show that he could keep up with her in an area she excelled at, in this case, board games. He had never played this game before but still had an expectation of success, because, well, 5 year olds. She, having beat momma and dadda, was the pro and took to the task of teaching the game very seriously. She won the first match. He very quietly disappeared. She had not been boastful about her victory, and was very courteous and respectful as the victor and welcomed him to another round. But he was gone. I went and found him in another bedroom, very silently hiding behind a chair against the wall, out of plain sight. I asked him if he was ok. He said yea. I asked him if he wanted to come out and play something else. He said not yet. Then I asked him if he was disappointed that he had lost the game. He very politely said yes. I told him to hang there as long as he needed and to come on out when he was ready, then I walked out of the room. A few minutes later he emerged and he and my daughter went about playing other things and had a grand old day of playing. What did I gain from this? Kids freaking hate losing. And they will do whatever it takes to avoid losing again. As adults we have a tendency to call this quitting. That is because we have years of experience in losing, but we also have years of experience in knowing just what it takes to succeed and how freaking hard it is to succeed. Kids do not realize just how difficult it is to win things. It is an expectation on their part to win everything they do, and each kid reacts in their own way when they don’t. They are learning.
What I have learned is that my daughter hates losing. What I have also learned is that she is not wrong for the way she reacts when she loses. She is not a 38 year old beer league hockey player who can get over a championship loss in mere minutes, and to act or expect any differently is pure folly. What she is doing is beginning to read her emotions and make her own decisions based off those emotions. As a father, how can I expect anything less? There will be a time when she understands the benefits of losing. For now, though, I’m just going to let her be the fastest 5 year old I know.