Empathy goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. Does that mean that empathetic parenting and teaching should be devoid of competition? It’s natural to want to shield our kids—whether our students or our offspring—from losing. But eliminating competition from our children’s lives would be doing them a disservice. The world is full of competition, full of opportunities to win out and to lose out. Applying to college, entering the job market, navigating romantic relationships—all of these inevitable “real” life experiences will involve wins and losses.
Play can, and should, be used to introduce the emotional experiences of winning and losing to children in a friendly and fun environment. But there are ways to set up games and matches so that kids can learn how to be “good” winners and losers. Here are some tips.
(1) Whenever possible, set up a series of small matches rather than one large competition. Ideally, everyone will win sometimes and lose sometimes, and kids can can come to see losing as a temporary state rather than an ultimatum on their abilities.
(2) Offer coaching to kids that focuses on their skills rather than on the overall match or the actions of competitors. (“Watch your control of the ball,” rather than “Don’t let him take control of the ball.”) This helps kids direct attention to their own personal performance and improving it. In this way, you can focus the competition on personal progress and learning rather than winning or losing.
(3) Try using different language. Rather than calling players “opponents” or “competitors,” call everyone “partners.” It’s not so bad to see someone else winning if you don’t feel like they’re the enemy.
(4) Balance out skill-based games with games that rely entirely on chance, such as War. Point out the difference to your child, and use the game as an opportunity to illustrate that sometimes winning depends on luck rather than skill.
Contributions from Marisol Slater.