Losing ugly: 5 tips to help your child with sportsmanship

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 3-year-old daughter Viva who believes that second place is first loser.

My wife and I have an agreement to try and keep the worst angels of one another’s natures in check. We are well aware that each of us is not just happy with winning – we must win all things, all the time, with no room for anyone else to win. We want to crush our competitors, see them driven before us and hear the lamentations of their women. I am not a doctor, but I believe we are both what is known as, in clinical terms, bonkers. It was no surprise to us, then, that when our three-year-old lost at a board game for the first time, she went completely ape stool bazoo.

The game in question was “Hi Ho Cherry-O,” which is a funny thing to lose your mind over – but it’s never about the prize, is it? It’s just about the act of winning. And win, she did, her first time out – fair and square. She soaked in the glory of victory at her very first game. She reveled in the applause and her entire body vibrated with glee because she picked all the plastic cherries off of her tree before the rest of us. The victory had, after all, been hard won – she clearly spun the spinner more skillfully than the rest of the family. If she hadn’t been so skillful, clearly the arrow would have landed on “bird” or “dog” or “spilled basket” more times, as it had with the other players who had not won. You don’t win at Hi Ho Cherry-O but wanly spinning and landing on the damned hungry bird. You have to want it a lot more than that.

After we had finished taking pictures of her winning her first game ever and her battle cry of “Hi Ho Cherry-O” had stopped reverberating through the house, she asked to play again. Immediately I knew there was a problem. She spun “empty basket” and declared that it had “landed on the line,” and spun again. She spun the hungry dog and deliberately miscounted to two. She fooled no one.

Game two finished and she officially lost, and that’s when all hell broke loose. She ugly cried, she scattered the plastic cherries (and it only comes with one extra per color, so you really can’t lose the cherries), and she said she “never wanted to play again.” (Which is a foolish declaration when members of your generation potentially have 110 more years to live, give or take. There’s a better than average chance you’ll have to play “Hi Ho Cherry-O” again in the next 110 years, assuming Milton-Bradley and Hasbro don’t end up under ice cap water.)

“But, Sweetie,” we consoled, “There are things to playing a game besides winning.”

“But that’s the only thing that makes it fun for me,” she sobbed without irony or exaggeration. Clearly she is our daughter, and clearly we have our hands full.

But what to say?! What other part of playing a game is actually fun? The process? The teamwork? The sportsmanship? Um … barf. That stuff is boring and stupid and people who don’t win pretend to enjoy it.

You can’t say that to a child, though, can you? We have to keep a stiff upper lip (or whatever the non-British version of that saying is) and help them find ways cope.

Here are some coping mechanisms; some guidelines for when your kid loses. (And I’ve seen your kid, if they aren’t used to it by now … it’s coming.)

Acknowledge their awful, bitter, selfish feelings as perfectly natural.

“You are crying over a game involving a spinning pointer and plastic fruit because not destroying your competitors EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE COMPETING AGAINST YOUR PARENTS AND GRANDMA AND A PLUSH DOG feels like the end of the world. These feelings are a perfectly natural part of growing up, just like wetting your pants or biting people. We recognize your feelings, honey. We even share those feelings – even though you are three and can’t even read the instructions, I can feel resentment for you coursing through my veins: you’re a tiny child – you should NOT have beaten me last round. Namaste.”

Congratulate their accomplishments.

“I know you wanted to win and didn’t – but you DID pick up a lot of plastic cherries, and you consistently used the toilet like a human today. Next time we play you will hopefully win, but for now at least take solace in the fact that you are considerably smarter and better looking than most of your friends.”

Downplay the profound importance of winning.

“Sure, every day is a competition from the moment you wake up until you collapse into an overworked, unappreciated heap at the end of the day. Sure, there are haves and have-nots on this earth and the have-nots just might die in a ditch because they weren’t able to pry resources from the hands of their peers, but there are things in the this world besides winning; minor things, things that few people respect, and nothing I can name at this moments – but there are things.”

Set guidelines for playing.

“The way you threw your fake cherries just now? That was unbecoming. People don’t like a sore loser, throwing things is rude, and your mother and I were only pretending to enjoy playing this baby game, anyway. If you wish to continue playing, you have to push those tantrums down, down, down into the feelings cellar like Mommy and Daddy do when we pay medical co-pays or wake up to get you a drink every night at three in the morning for almost four years.”

Don’t take a dive.

While it would be poor form to grind your own offspring into dust every time you play, you also shouldn’t let them win every time. Letting your child win every time will prevent them from learning about frustration and disappointment. It will turn them into a spoiled, entitled, emotionally incapable baby like most Millennials and most Jetsons for whatever the newest generation is called. They will expect a trophy for showing up, straight A’s just because their parents paid their tuition, and non-stop praise even though they are barely capable of analytical thought and spend their entire day snapchatting picture of their butts to one another and screaming “check your privilege” at everyone they see as though it is an argument. We don’t need any more kids like that.

Your child doesn’t need to enjoy losing. Losing is the worst. Losing is for losers. (It’s right there in the name.) But they do need to be able to deal with it. After all, it’s the possibility of losing that makes it so sweet when you finally do get to shout “Hi Ho Cherry-O!

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