Prev Next

The art of losing (and winning): how do you teach your child to compete?

By Alice Bradley

Henry is in one room. I’m in the other. Two outfits lie before each of us. We’ve been waiting for this moment for seconds, if not minutes. And now the moment of truth has arrived.

“Ready,” I call out.
“Set,” Henry yells.
The race is on.

And just like that, within seconds, it’s all over. Henry has won by a landslide, after I a) tripped over my skirt, b) forgot how a shirt works, and c) couldn’t find my shoes. As both timekeeper and competitor, I was already at a disadvantage, but no one expected me to lose quite that spectacularly.

Henry enters the room, and places a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “You’ll win next time, Mom,” he tells me. I shrug and nod. “Good game, good game,” I mutter, fumbling with my zipper. We both know I’m not going to win next time.
Henry and I compete every morning. Of course it’s all a ruse to get him dressed. He knows it, but still he humors me, and the bottom line is, he can’t resist the thrill of a race. Most of the time I let him win, because if I was the victor he would enter the room to congratulate me, his pants still around his ankles, and it would take me another half-hour to convince him to hike them up to his waist. I do make a point of winning occasionally, though. I want to keep his competitive juices flowing—if he always wins, what’s the point of the race?—and I also want him to know that losing isn’t the end of the world. And I must say, for several reasons, I feel like our morning races are a small triumph in my own private Parenting Olympics. In addition to getting him dressed without all that pleading and cajoling, he’s getting some excellent practice in being a gracious winner and loser.

We compete a lot around here. Whether we’re racing to the front door or playing Zingo, we trade off being the winner and the loser quite often, and I truly think he’s better for it. Meanwhile, though, it seems like schools are embracing the “everyone’s a winner!” mentality, where everyone gets an award just for participating, and the spoils do not necessarily go to the victor. This strikes me as a huge mistake. It denies kids the joy of competing, of trying to be the best; it denies the winner the joy of winning, and it denies the others the opportunity to find out that losing isn’t the end of the world. As a decidedly non-athletic sort, I spent my formative years competing in spelling bees and math-athons. And I really think that if I hadn’t received any special accolades for TRIUMPHING over all those BOZOS, I wouldn’t have been half as motivated to learn how to spell “enthusiastic.” (Look, I can spell it now! Without my 3rd-grade-spelling-bee championship plaque, I might be typing “enthoozasm” and figuring that’s close enough.) The reality is that life presents people with races of all kinds—for jobs, for grades, for a place on the team—and kids have to get used to that. They need to master the art of both losing and winning.

It’s an art that, if you’ve been watching the Olympics, some experienced athletes need to work on. The Olympic committee was none too pleased with the antics of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who appeared to flaunt his record-breaking victories as he shouted “I am number 1!” at the cameras. Not exactly getting with the Olympic spirit, he failed to acknowledge the efforts of his fellow competitors and even slowed down as he neared the finish line, just to emphasize how far ahead he was. Wow.

Then there was the controversy over tennis player Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, who (if you believe his competitor as well as the video replay) failed to call a point against himself when an out-of-bounds ball brushed his racquet. The umpire didn’t see it, and because tennis doesn’t rely on video replays for final decisions, it was up to Gonzalez to admit to his error—but instead he played dumb, thus guaranteeing himself a place on the medal podium. A place, it appears, he doesn’t deserve.

The most infamous case of Olympian poor sportsmanship occurred in wrestling, where a member of the Swedish team, Ara Abrahamian, refused the bronze medal, throwing it to the ground and storming off during the awards ceremony. The Olympic committee took back the medal and rebuked Abrahamian—a move they didn’t make, as one article pointed out, toward their hosts, when China admonished one of their own competitors, pistol shooter Tan Zongliang, for winning a bronze. “Instead of congratulating Tan, they publicly berated the Olympian for placing ‘only’ third, leaving him to bow his head in shame on national TV and admit he’d ‘let his country down.'” Whew. China probably doesn’t give their third-grade spelling bee participants awards just for showing up, either.

Fortunately there were enough examples, during the Olympics, of gracious winning and losing (or coming in—gasp—third place!) for our kids to see. Henry decided (much like plenty of other kids, I’m sure) that he wants to be Michael Phelps—a role model for gracious winning if ever I’ve seen one—when he grows up. He’s almost there. You should see how fast the kid can put on his socks.

And you, dear readers? How do you teach your kids about healthy competition?

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • Liz C

    August 22, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    ‘Bout all you can do is case-by-case and lead by example. Family board games, card games, all are opportunities to show ’em how it’s done. It doesn’t come naturally, that’s for sure.
    My son is notoriously uncompetitive. If I tried the dressing race, he would shrug and say ‘You win, Mom.’

  • De in D.C.

    August 22, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I’d like to think I’m teaching my son about winning/losing and how to be a gracious loser when we play board games together, but really, I’m just too competitive to purposely lose. But he wins fairly frequently even without my help, so don’t feel too badly for him.

  • sarahbeanne

    August 22, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    I don’t know what they did, but my mom & step-father rasied my brother (22 years younger than me) in a way that has made him so gracious in competition. Even when he was a little guy,I would challenge him in games and he has always been a skilled competitor, whether it was scrabble, running across a field, or eating broccoli. If I won, he’d casually congratulate me or give me a sticker (preshus), and then it was onto the next thing. I think one of the keys is the “not dwelling on it” part. Although my parents did once use a photo of us playing scrabble on the holiday card, and printed the score, with the 8-year-old beating his 30-year-old, master’s degree holding sister.

  • claudia

    August 22, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I think we can instill graciousness at home thru teaching, modeling, setting expectations and being good sports. It’s trickier when our efforts meet the realities of the big bad world – as in China’s condemnation of its third place medalist. There is so much inconsistency out there… There are the hovering parents who insist that their darling is a Winner Every Time and there are those notorious parents who practically beat their kids for committing a foul or striking out. Now that my older two kids are fully immersed in school/sports (ages seven and ten), we try to address startling behavior by having casual conversations about it after games and matches… I am pleased when one of my sons comes to me and says, “Ummmm… Alex’s dad told the ref he sucked – Uh – was that unsportsmanlike conduct?” Why, yes, my dear, so glad you recognized that… and then we talk it thru.

  • Cobwebs

    August 22, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Check out LawDog’s rant on a current Dallas school district policy: Link
    I think that preventing kids from ever failing does them a huge disservice. Real Life doesn’t grade on a curve, and kids who don’t discover that things don’t always go their way will face some hard lessons later.

  • RLJ

    August 24, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I am soooo going to plagiarise [sic; I’m British] your idea for the getting dressed race with my highly opinionated 3 yo.
    But I feel the need to add: lay off Bolt; he is the fastest man on earth. Ever. He slowed in the 100 because he still had the 200 and a relay to go. He already had the 100 record so didn’t need to go all out. I have a feeling if he were American there wouldn’t be the same hooha (and it was only the president, not the whole committee, who felt the need to bitch about it, anyway).

  • Alice


    August 27, 2008 at 11:51 am

    De in D.C. reminded me of a question I meant to bring up: do you let your kid win, when you play board games? I do, quite often. I make a point of winning enough that he can practice his losing skills, but I let him win manymanymany times. Mostly this is because if he keeps losing he might give up and then make me play Legos with him (shudder). But also there are times when he has a huge disadvantage and I want to give him an edge. LIke this one game we have, in which color identification is key, and he’s (we’re 99.9% sure) colorblind but doesn’t quite know it. So.
    Cobwebs, the link didn’t work–can you retry?
    RLJ, I heard it was the entire committee who badmouthed Bolt! Huh. And I can’t really speak to his performance, having only heard about it second-hand… so okay, I will bow to your superior knowledge.