28 December 2010

Sore Losers

I got Maddie and Riley a couple of games for Christmas: Zingo and Sequence for Kids. I enjoy playing board games, although not with the fanaticism of some, and 4.5 seemed like a good age to introduce some simple gaming into our lives. In fact, the idea was Maddie and Riley's; they had a game day at school before the holidays and came home raving about how much fun it had been.

The games were given not much more than a perfunctory glance upon opening Christmas Day, but the idea of playing Zingo was received with much enthusiasm in the afternoon. We unpacked the game, got set up, read through the rules, and the gaming was underway. There was some confusion about the rules, but in general, it was all fun and . . . yeah, ok, that was lame.

Then Riley lost.

And Riley threw the one of the biggest fits I have ever seen him throw in his life. Which is saying a lot.

He wailed and cried. He railed and whined. He placed blame and blustered. He was finally convinced to play again, but that game was fraught from the start with attempts to cheat and concern that he might possibly lose again. Although then he won, and that was almost as bad what with the gloating and boasting and self-congratulating. Maddie handled the situation somewhat more maturely, but that's saying almost nothing.

Clearly, this is a Teachable Moment. I have to say that I was completely taken off guard by both Maddie's and Riley's competitive nature. In thinking back, seeing as we have not played many games, they have not often seen gracious loss or polite winning as modeled behavior by me, so they don't have a lot to go on. But they are endlessly cooperative in most aspects of their lives and we've had lots of discussions about how being the first one to the car is not important, being the fastest one to do a certain task is not important . . . in fact, we've been talking a lot lately about the value of slowing down and being careful, so the "make everything into a race" proclivity that seems to run in all kids has been somewhat tempered of late.

It's precisely the innate nature of the desire to win that threw me for a loop. Maddie and Riley both seem to share this deep-seated desire to WIN, and to take it as some kind of personal affront if they don't. I somehow did not realize how ingrained this was in humans and in our culture, although as I type it, it seems like I must be some kind of simpleton not to have been more aware.

What I'm not sure about is what to do next. I confess that my patience for the sore losing and the boasting is pretty much zero. Maddie ended up in a 15 minute time-out* when she flipped the Sequence board yesterday after drawing an "ugly" (her word) card from the deck. Then there was wily Riley, moving chips around on the board when "no one was looking," ha ha ha. GAR. We quit halfway through the third game when I said to them, "You know, playing games is supposed to be fun, and no one seems to be having much fun, so let's put this away for now." Or maybe FOREVER.

I jest. But I am troubled and at a loss for what to do other than model good behavior. I want them to understand that it's OK to be competitive, and it's OK to want to win, but that one does not always win and that it's not OK to act out when one loses. I also want them to understand that losing at a board game does not say anything about them as a person or in any way undermine their self-worth. That sounds so far-fetched, but it all seemed so deeply personal to me yesterday that I feel like I need to articulate that and make it as clear as I possibly can.

I said all of these things over the weekend. I told them that the kind thing to do when one loses is to look at the winner and say, "Good game. Want to play again?" I have the feeling that learning how to be a good sport is going to be a lifelong journey. I just hope we can at least make it through a game of Candy Land without a temper tantrum by the time they are five. Is that hoping for too much? How do you seasoned parents teach gracious competition?

*It started out at two minutes but escalated in one-minute increments when she would not go sit in the chair, stop shouting, etc.


Anonymous said...

I think a lot of this stuff is age-related. When my kids were that age, games were not fun. At all. For anyone. My kids are not twins, but they are very close in age and they are very competitive. Now that they are older (7 & 8), they handle winning and losing much better. I modeled graceful game behavior and when that failed, lectured about it, for years. It didn't work. Really, I think they just had to grow up a little.

liz said...

This is a hard one. My son is 8 and still has a hard time with it.

It gets easier, though, as they grow older. You can talk about good sportsmanship. Set up cooperative games. Do relay races where they have to work together to win (racing against a clock instead of another team).

Amanda said...

We play a lot of games with my 4yo, although I think playing with 2 4yos would be a disaster! Maybe play separately with them?

Although we initially taught the 4yo to say "winner winner chicken dinner" (because it was adorable when he was 3) we now have him say "good game, thanks for playing with me!" when he wins. Gracious losing we're still working on, as well as the boasting.

I think some of the early frustration is also around learning the rules of the game. When kids first play a game, I think it's a bit overwhelming so then to find out they lost at something they didn't even totally understand is a double whammy. We spend a LOT of time talking about how we practice to get better and that's why mommy/daddy are better at some games.

It's tough, but we love games, so it should all be worth it eventually...right?

Keen said...

We've been playing board games for quite a while now, thanks to teachers and therapists who come to our house and are all about the Teachable Moment. The best I've been able to come up with to tell my kids is, "You win some, you lose some."

I got the boys Richard Scarry's Busytown board game, and it was easily their favorite Christmas gift. You might like it because everyone plays as a team--you all either win together or lose together against the pigs who are trying to steal your food.

mama nabi said...

LN got Zingo last year for Christmas. And I was shocked, I tell you, SHOCKED when I saw how much she disliked losing. This is a kid who likes order, who allows other kids push past her because she's too busy making sure she stays in line, taking turns. She's not competitive - that's my ex's trait... and the gloating, that is also my ex... so I panicked. But then we played more games. She loved to play so much that the threat of NOT playing if she pouted or got mad was scary enough for her. And now, the most she does is friendly fake-disappointment (with an eager, "Can we play again... so I can maybe win?") or a happy non-gloaty clap with, "I won! Now, you won once and I won twice so we should play again so you can win two times, too!" :-D
Long story short... it is the age, I fear. For us, I think it helped to be enthusiastically congratulatory for every winner... "Yay!!! Mommy won! That was a great game! Should we try again and see if someone else will win the next game?" LOTS of perky enthusiastic cheer for the loser, "That was SOOO close - you were so fast, you almost won that game." Now, a year later, we are game playing family with lots of gentle friendly ribbing and encouragements. LN sometimes cheats in new games - I wonder if it's more because she's unsure how to win and her only strategy is to cheat. :-D But she's pretty good-natured about it when we call her on it.

Anonymous said...

You can explain that winning is a kind of way of taking turns--but we have to play to see whose turn it is to win. And sometimes one person gets a turn more than once, or more than twice, in a row. With board games, we just don't know. So shall we play and find out whose turn it is to win this time?
And as you progress through the game, you can be bewildered, or not, as to who you think will be the winner. "I think it might be Riley. What do you think?" "My goodness, that surprised me. Did it surprise you?"

michiganme said...

I think it's their age but temperament also has something to do with it. Both of my kids were often poor sports when they were really young. Now one is fine with losing, the other not so much, but at least he doesn't act out---he's just not happy. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

I think the more you play the easier it might become. I used to au pair for a family with an 8 year old girl. When I started playing with her she couldn't handle losing at all. I made it clear I was not willing to play with her when she went crazy if things didn't go her way in the game, so we ended up stopping a few games early. I lived and played with her for 6 months and the difference in her attitude at the end of that time was incredible. She could enjoy playing without the anxiety of losing.

Janine (txmomx6) said...

Hi Snick,
Trust me .... as a mom of 6 .... this is quite normal. It's rare to have a young child who is good with losing. It's an innate "gift". And it will get better .... it just takes time .... and consistent discipline (just the way you handled it .... if you can't play for fun, then you can't play). They'll learn.
Good luck.

amy said...

I wasn't completely aware of what a sore loser my kid is until he got a bad grade in kindergarten P.E. Oh, the shame!

We are still very much working on it, and I have no good advice beyond what others have said -- super happy, enthusiastic modeling of good behavior in a winner and loser.

django's mommy said...

I've used the turn-taking strategy as well, and it's helpful. Some of it is definitely the age of M&R, no question. I also found team sports (summer t-ball) incredibly helpful- when they see other kids their age "gracefully losing", it helped a ton. They also (obviously) modeled good sportsmanship. The Richard Scarry Busytown game (which N just got for Christmas) is a good idea, too, I think, b/c they can both play as a team against those pigs who want to eat your picnic. :) It's a cute game.

Karin said...

I play cooperative board games with my daughter - Caves and Claws. There's no winner or loser we have to work together to achieve the games goals.

caro said...

My sympathies! We've had all kinds of win/lose drama around here, beginning with Candyland at age 3. I think practice just helps.

And I go on and on and on about enjoying each part of the game (how the pieces are shiny and feel nice, or deciding where to move next, or improving at a skill involve, or whatever), trying to make the process/journey more the point.

I also often give them a way of playing while avoiding the whole win/lose question. For example, we got a (fun! really!) game called Blokus as a Christmas gift ... you fit little plastic shapes into a grid and the one who fits the most in wins. When one of the kids runs out of options to place things, I let her join my team -- so that she can keep playing. At the end we're all on one "team" finishing the board. Same concept with crazy 8s and such.

There's probably a good chance this will stunt my children from capitalist success, but for now it keeps the peace (mostly) and gives them a chance to step into those interactions gradually.

Anonymous said...

i second the "busytown" recommendation -- since the whole family either wins or loses as a team and the "opponents" are the pigs -- which is fun and the kids don't see it in quite the same competitive way.

Janet said...

I have a 5 yo and a 6 yo and we play some sort of game between dinner and bed almost every night. It is definitely a struggle sometimes. What works best for us is continuing to play until everyone has "won" (finished). It hasn't taken very long for the kids to realize that being the first winner isn't always all it's cracked up to be, because then you don't get to play anymore!

We do also really try to take note of when someone is being a good sport (not just at the end of the game) -- like if you have to roll a "2" to get started and one kid has been waiting 15 turns and still not gotten one, we make sure to point out what a good sport he's being.

Anonymous said...

The non-competitive games are already suggested. One new idea: in our family, the winner was in charge of carefully putting the game away. That seemed to help the child who lost the game.

SarcastiCarrie said...

I was going to recommend the Busytown game too. I'll make my comment special by adding a link (I hope).

It's a good game for the 4-year old competitive set because everyone wins or everyone loses. Together. My kid (of course) decided that whoever got to the boat was the winner but a quick appeal to authority (the rule booklet) squashed that idea.

kathy a. said...

i wonder what kinds of games they played at school?

everyone has mentioned their ages, and that it gets better with practice, and cooperative games.

i also think there's less acting out if people outside the immediate family are playing. [the same way they can be angels at school and then go into full meltdown at home...]

Anonymous said...

That could be my 4.5 yr old son you're writing about! I don't know what the answer is except a lot of talking about not being competitive/being a good friend etc. etc., what you're already doing. I was so affronted the first time my son acted like that. It was like my parenting skills were being displayed for the world as being completely inadequate. Almost every kid goes through it and doing what you're doing will help get them through this stage.

(It's also hard to deal with because our society treats competitiveness as a badge of honour, and it is good to be competitive. Those personality traits will help our kids persevere in life. But, it also needs to be tempered so kids recognize how alienating it can be when they're too competitive and verge into meaness, etc. Sooo hard making kids into kind, caring, empathetic human beings...)

Anonymous said...

I'm laughing, both because I'm currently going through this to some extent with my four year old (and we've basically done the same thing--explained to her that it's important to be both a "good winner" and a "good loser"), and also because I just had a heated discussion with my husband last night about Scrabble: we used to play together quite a bit, but until last night hadn't played for two years, because he is the most bloodthirsty Scrabble player I have ever come across. He plays entirely for points, and will intentionally block other players from, say, a triple word score if he can. For me, the fun thing about Scrabble is challenging yourself to come up with the coolest words you can, regardless if they are a couple points less than a simpler word in a more strategic spot. So anyway, last night I finally told him that the way he plays is not fun for me, because it's so cutthroat, and I have to concentrate so hard on amassing points that I don't enjoy it at all. I'm still not sure, however, who's right about this: he maintains that the point of Scrabble is to win, regardless of what you have to do to get there, and doesn't understand my preoccupation with making "cool" words.

Sorry--I think I lost track of my point here--I guess it is just that this sometimes continues WELL into adulthood, and maybe the answer sometimes is to just put the game away for a while?

Terri said...

As the mother of a 20 year old, I've seen it all -- with her, with her friends, with nieces and nephews. Life is competitive, so I personal don't agree with the non-competitive games. As Janine pointed out, it is age related and you just need to keep emphasizing that it is meant to be fun and you can't always win -- you will have to drill it into them, trust me, and if they don't think it is fun then they don't have to play (trust me, they want to play).

As fas as working together to achieve a common goal, that is a completely different matter altogether. If you want to teach them how to work as a team in a competive environment, that can be done as part of a sports team -- even it eventually is doubles tennis -- or an academic team. There are lots of ways to teach them to be a team and still allow them to be competitive and to learn how to be a "good" loser. Just my opinion.

Kelli said...

I read but I don't think I've ever commented before. But, I had to on this one, because we have SOOOO been there before! I also have b/g twins (they will be 5 in January), and although they are getting much better, board game time can still be immensely stressful. Your description of their responses is spot on with my kids' when we first started playing games, and I was equally caught off guard.
I don't have any advice (sorry!), but we have basically done just what you suggest, which is model good losing/winning behavior. They have gotten drastically better in the last year, but it still happens here and there.

Good luck! :)

A said...

My two girls are not twins, but very close in age, and it is only now, at 7 and 7.5 that they can play any board or card game together. Until recently, I had to play with one or the other, and one in particular would cheat outrageously. I made it clear that she could cheat with me, but no one else, and I still try to make sure that I only win occasionally, if I have control. But increasingly we are all playing flat out, following the rules, and having fun no matter who wins. I had to be very patient, but it seems to be paying off.

Molly said...

Games are very tough for young kids. When mine were that age, I found some wonderful cooperative board games from a company called Family Pastimes. The games had all the traditional game elements (taking turns, moving along the board, having good or bad luck, etc) but required players to work together towards a common goal. It eliminated the I win/you lose aspect and allowed the kids to play without the meltdowns. My kids enjoyed the games (they especially liked "Max" and "The Adventures of Harley") and nobody minded that there wasn't an individual winner.


Anonymous said...

i'm a kindergarten teacher and see all the time that games are TOUGH. the most successful, popular and fun games we have in our classroom are ones where the entire point of the game is simply taking turns and learning how to be participants in a game-type setting, promoting good sportsmanship at every turn. Remove all pressure to learn any rules or strategies. That is in itself a just-right challenge for kids of this age- trying to learn a new game while learning a new concept like sportsmanship at the same time is just too much for them to handle.

There's a game called Snails Pace Race that kindies go WILD for, especially boys. it's supposed to be noncompetitive, but they always seem to tweak the rules and root for a certain snail (which is hilarious), but the point is they're taking turns and cheering each other on, and the game is fast-paced and random enough that nobody feels at fault when they lose.

Memory is a great one, and they like Candyland, but many prefer the mod that if you draw a card that corresponds to a space that is behind you, you don't have to go backward. (sounds wimpy, but it makes games go so much faster! i'm the biggest fan of this tweak of all!)

another game that is good for teaching the rules of sportsmanship and taking turns is simply putting together 2 dice, some tiny trinkets, and a gameboard (either unnumbered or like a school-style 100 mat works well). The object of the game is simply to roll the dice and then move your token that number of spaces until someone reaches the end.

What most of these games have in common is that they are somewhat random, and therefore there can be no sense that one could have played better to have won. young children understand this even if they can't put it into words. they accept these kinds of triumphs and defeats with much more grace!

Anonymous said...

Didn't read through other comments, so may be repeating other advice, but...
When we first started playing board games (a bit younger, at age 3), we didn't play to win. We played to finish, and kept playing until everyone finished. For a while they really didn't even notice who finished first, or even care. The goal was just to get everyone to finish. Now still even when we play Sequence Jr. (at 4.25 years), they often want to make more than 1 row. So, we basically play until the whole board is filled. They have a harder time now with losing/being blocked by others, but it still works pretty well for us to do things this way.

Sandi said...

Oh, my son is majorly competitive and a very sore loser. My daughter is not like that at all. I think it's just their nature.