Some children are very flexible about winning and losing from the preschool years forward, but many struggle with it. To know how to best address this question, it helps to understand what games mean to children, particularly young children.
Learning to accept chance: Children have fun when they play games, but it is also hard work for them for several reasons, including the fact that they have a lack of control over the outcome. Although some games involve skill, all involve a heavy dose of luck. For example, when playing Candyland, a child cannot influence or control the order of the cards. Children derive much comfort from the illusion that the world can be controlled — they hold tenaciously to the idea that Mommy and Daddy can take care of any problem. Games help introduce children to the painful reality that much of life is beyond anyone’s control. One appeal of games is that this difficult aspect of life, which adults continue to grapple with to one extent or another, can be introduced in the context of a game.
Learning to take turns: Taking turns is part of every game. Children want every turn to be theirs. It is hard work to wait for the next opportunity, wondering what lies in store. As they play, with parental help, children build mental muscles by learning to tolerate their frustration about waiting.
Winning equals winner: Along with being hard work, playing is also serious work for a child. Adults may think that a game isn’t serious because it is just pretend and nothing is really won or lost. However, imagining and pretending are always serious business for a child. Game or not, winning or losing may be something Janine takes very seriously.
Preschool children often see the world in black and white divisions. There are good guys and bad guys. Good guys do good things and have good things happen to them. Bad guys do bad things and have bad things happen to them. It would make sense, then, to children that good guys are winners and bad guys are losers, which means there is much more at stake to a young child than just winning and losing.
Children believe it is safer to be a winner than a loser, and that they are better people if they are winners. It may be that some children become so upset when they lose because it feels as if he or she is being turned into a loser and will be stuck in the bad side of the great divide. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that child would make a fuss when he or she loses!
Age-appropriate reactions: Preschool children have much to learn about the many personality-building aspects of playing games, such as chance and control. At this young age, mastering these features is the most important focus. It may be too much for a young child to be a good sport about winning and losing, and we would recommend that parents go along with their child’s need to win. Of course, parents could do it with a wink and a smile, conveying to their child that they both know that her having turned over the cards at the end until she got the one that would provide her with a win was outside the rules, but OK with her mom or dad.
We recommend that parents begin to expect children to tolerate occasional losses when at age 5. When a child is six, he or she can be expected to fully follow the rules of a game and accept the consequences. During kindergarten and first grade, children have grown in their ability to understand that a game is truly a game and should not confuse the outcome of a game with their own identity. They also are entering a time when they should be interested and invested in shared rules that exist outside themselves, moving beyond the attitude of a preschool child who treats rules as fodder for imagination and personal alteration.
Parents shouldn’t worry that they will be teaching their child that he will always win if they allow him to win all the games at this point in his life. Rather, parents will be teaching their child that they are sensitive to their readiness to tolerate losing. This parental sensitivity will provide the connection and support to enable their child to become one day the gracious winner and gracious loser that parents would like their children to become.