Does this scene sound familiar? You’ve taught your preschooler how to kick a soccer ball, and he’s proud of his newfound skill. Time after time you’ve let him score on you in the backyard -- and he loves to throw up his arms and yell “Goooo-al!” This time, however, you block his shot. The reaction is a full-out tantrum. The ball gets kicked into the shrubs, and the tears pour down. Are you raising a poor loser?
No way, says Richard Ginsburg, P.h.D., a faculty member of Harvard Medical School. But introducing the notion of competition -- whether the game is soccer or Go Fish -- interferes with him learning to play the game.
“Young children don’t even understand the concept of winning and losing until they are six or seven,” says Dr. Ginsburg, who also acts as co-director of Paces, a sports psychology institute run out of Massachusetts General Hospital. They can’t separate themselves from the wins and losses. In other words, a winning score indicates they’ve done something right and should feel good about themselves. A loss is catastrophic. It means they’ve messed up, something they should feel bad about.
“Toddlers and preschoolers just want to have fun, feel safe and feel good about their bodies,” he adds. Here are five tips to help keep your child’s head in the game and not on the scoreboard:
- Breed success Games are easier for young children to learn when the experience is a positive one. Deal her a winning hand or pitch from four feet away -- whatever allows her to play successfully and hone her skills.
- Play dumb If someone, an older child for instance, is keeping score, develop amnesia and draw attention to some other aspect of the game. Say something like, “I don’t remember the score, but didn’t it feel great when you caught that ball?” Heaping on the praise will help build your child’s self-esteem.
- Reengage your player Keep the game moving so the focus is on having fun and building skills, not who’s on top. Even for young children, learning comes with repetition and practice.
- Coach good behavior Occasionally, eagerness to play gets in the way of good behavior, but a meltdown in manners shouldn’t be confused with being a sore loser. If taking turns changes your child into a monster, the same talk you might have in the family room about sharing toys applies to the backyard ball game.
- Model good sportsmanship From toddlerhood on up, your child is watching you for clues as to how to behave. Adults, not children, are the ones placing an emphasis on winning and losing, according to Dr. Ginsburg. The fact is, your child is going to suffer plenty of adversity with other people, so why not let her feel like a winner with you?
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