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Whether she dreams of representing her country on the women’s hockey team or is getting ready to enter her school’s spelling bee (who’s to say she can’t rock both?), your girl needs to be ready to compete. And a big part of that is understanding how to be a gracious loser as well as a compassionate winner.
“As much as you might hope your daughter will be the best at everything she tries, she’s going to come in second, twelfth, and even last sometimes—and that’s a good thing,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “Nobody wins every time, and the sooner she can see success as the result of patience and hard work and failure as a learning experience, life will be easier for her.”
Sports competitions—especially exciting international events—provide a wonderful opportunity to bring up these concepts and explore them with your girl. When an athlete wins, do they take the time to congratulate their opponent on their efforts, or do they simply revel in the praise from the crowd? Similarly, does the person or team that lost pout and stomp away after the competition ends, or do they shake hands and applaud the winner? Sometimes even the athletes who children look up to display poor sportsmanship, which makes it even more important for parents to teach the art of acting with empathy and kindness, even in the face of competition.
But don’t just talk about competition, get her in the thick of it, too! Sign her up for a mix of activities, some competitive, some not as much—but think twice about engaging her in groups that make a point of handing out equal “participation” prizes to all children involved. Of course the intention of avoiding hurt feelings is a good one, but teaching your daughter that everyone is always a winner could actually set her up for self-doubt later on and diminish her self-esteem when she’s confronted with life’s realities.
At home, try playing age-appropriate competitive games (those ages listed on board game boxes really do mean something!), and resist the urge to let her win. If you’re playing a game of chance, explain that nobody knows who will win—there’s no way to be “good” or “bad” at the game, it’s just about having fun! You’ll take turns and find out who the winner is at the end as an exciting surprise. If it’s her this time, it might be you or someone else the time after. These types of games are good for younger children, who are still learning the patience of taking turns, but can also be helpful for teaching good sportsmanship.
If she’s playing a competitive sport or game of skill, emphasize the fun of playing and testing her strengths. And if another player comes in first place, encourage your daughter to congratulate them and ask them for tips on how she might do better next time, and then suggest she spend some time practicing to sharpen her skills. Success doesn’t come easily or generally on the first try for anyone, and it’s no secret that many top athletes and professionals surround themselves with people who are similarly successful (or even more so!). That’s because these athletes know that having talented people around can inspire them to work harder and help them pick up new techniques along the way.
When your daughter does win over others, make sure she also knows how to both own her success (this can be hard for many girls and women, because society has for so long believed it’s more feminine to be humble) and think of those who weren’t as successful, recognize their efforts, and help them rise in the future.
Inevitably, there will be some activities that your daughter will never come first in. Your petite daughter may crush gymnastics but always lag behind her long-legged friends in track. Similarly, your family’s resident mathlete might have a harder time getting creative enough to win a ribbon in the local art competition. The point is, although everyone is good at some things, it’s impossible to be good at allthings. That doesn’t mean she should stop enjoying activities she doesn’t excel at, though—far from it!
Participating in activities that bring her joy just for the fun of it is a wonderful thing, and losing gracefully is a sign of emotional maturity. Enjoying the journey whether she comes in first place or fiftieth is what it means to be winning at life.