Playing with children isn’t all fun and games. When it comes to friendly competition, it’s not unusual for the giggles to become tears faster than you can say “go fish”. For parents, this can be an overwhelming challenge.
Halifax psychologist Angela MacKay thinks it has a lot to do with our childrens’ emotional development. “We all get frustrated with ourselves when we lose. Elementary school children have a harder time expressing that frustration appropriately, mainly because of their cognitive development and their limited ability to manage their emotions.”
But childhood competition has a variety of positive benefits. It helps children develop cooperative, social and problem solving skills, plus it enhances their sense of cause and effect. “When you’re working towards a goal,” says Angela. “You’re paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. And that’s a valuable life skill.”
Luckily, it just takes a little patience – and a lot of support – to help our children develop the skills they need to become good sports.
Start by teaching them to enjoy the game itself. Encourage them to look at it as a series of small accomplishments, instead of something they won or lost.
When it comes to team sports, it also helps to look at individual successes. This technique not only saves their self-esteem, it also helps them learn from their mistakes and achievements. By paying attention to the small achievements, they’ll gain a better understanding of what worked and what didn’t. If they pass the ball to someone and it goes well, praise them for choosing to pass. If they make a decision that doesn’t work out, ask them what they’d like to try next time.
We also need to empathize with our children when they lose. It helps to tell them that you know they did their best, and to point out the new skills they learned. And showing our children how to win gracefully is just as essential. “We need to teach a sense of humility,” says Angela. “It’s good for them to be proud and excited, but they also need to remember that someone else lost. We need to teach them to be kind.” She also emphasizes the importance of telling our children when they’re behaving inappropriately.
Finally, model good sportsmanship. “As a parent, it’s essential to be supportive, but we need to be careful,” says Angela. “In order to teach sportsmanship, we really have to watch what we ourselves are doing. More than anything, our children learn from watching us.”
Looking for the perfect opportunity to help your child learn to be a good sport? Here are Angela MacKay’s top three parent-child activities:
- Relax: Yoga teaches a variety of important skills. It builds selfawareness, helps children be present in the moment and encourages them to focus. These are all skills that can transfer to competitive sports. Not only will these skills help children keep their emotions in check, they’ll also improve their game.
- Play Outside: Remember spending whole afternoons playing hide and seek in the backyard? Angela thinks we need to get back to basics. Games like hide and seek and kick the can promote creativity and focus. Plus, they aren’t formally competitive and the rules have a little more flexibility than traditional sports.
- Play Inside: Board games offer the perfect opportunity to model good sportsmanship to our children. If they’re used to playing with a group of children and one adult coach, they’re not as likely to notice an adult modeling good behaviour. By playing a board game one-on-one, you’re giving them a great example of how to behave.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2013.