Blog: My Son Is a Sore Loser!

Susan Stiffelman

My 6-year-old son is such a sore loser. Whether it’s a board game, a video game, a game at school…. it doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t win, he cries and is in the worst mood possible. It kind of drives me crazy. I am of the school of thought that I shouldn’t let him win, and hope that he’ll get over this. My husband tends to cave and wants to let him win. Then I get mad at my husband because we have different parenting styles on this subject. Help!

Built into any competitive game is the notion that somebody will come out ahead. But as in life, we all perform better at some things than others, and sometimes we just get lucky and pick the Ace that gives us the winning hand. It’s vital that we help our children learn that they don’t always have to be Number One to be happy. Here’s my advice:

• Don’t make a big deal about winning. While it is perfectly acceptable to congratulate whoever wins, avoid going over the top. Create rituals where everyone shakes hands or gives each other high-fives when the game is over to celebrate what really matters — the laughter and time being together that was enjoyed by all.

• Model, model, model. If your child sees you losing your cool when someone grabs the seats you wanted at the movie theater or the parking spot you had your eye on, they will get the message that winning matters. Be aware of what your son sees you doing when things don’t go your way.

• Avoid competitive games. Some children are inherently very ambitious, and while that quality may serve them in some situations, it can throw a damp towel over everyone’s fun on family game night. There are many games these days where there is not a defined winner or loser, like The Secret Door or Caves and Claws.

• Set guidelines for Game Night. Let your child know that as long as everyone is having fun, the game will continue. Speak in positive, rather than negative terms. If he starts to fall apart, kindly let him know that “For now, we’re hitting the pause button on our game.” Let him take a break and see if he can return in better spirits —without lecturing him or shaming him for being a poor sport.

• Don’t intentionally let him win. While you certainly don’t need to bring your A-game to the table with your 6-year-old, I would avoid letting him win every game. Doing so will not help him learn to cope with frustration or disappointment; in fact, as you have discovered, it will be counterproductive, creating unrealistic expectations and tremendous tension for everyone he plays with.

• Rule out other stressors. Some children’s pent up anger or frustration leaks out when they are in competitive situations. Determine whether other challenges in your son’s life are contributing to his just-below-the-surface explosiveness.

• Share this column with your husband. Although you cannot and should not try to control what he does, if you simply share your views without telling him what he is doing wrong, perhaps the two of you can be more aligned. Otherwise, do what feels right to you and trust him to come on board if and when he chooses.

• Redefine what it means to succeed. In her soon-to-be-released book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Arianna Huffington says:

Over time our society’s notion of success has been reduced to money and power. In fact, at this point, success, money, and power have practically become synonymous in the minds of many… But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people — very successful people — are toppling over. 

I hope that by incorporating some of these tips into your parenting, you will be able to help your son know that that when we understand that winning and success are about enjoying the game of life, we can never lose.