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Scared your child is a sore loser?

Scared your child is a sore loser?

Scared your child is a sore loser?

By Nathaniel Basch-Gould
Creative Lead | Product Manager
Story Time Chess

One of the most common questions I received from parents when I was an early childhood chess tutor was: “Should I let my child win?”

Even after six years on the job, I still sometimes found it difficult to answer. First off, every child is different. Some kids are hardwired to seek out victory, some don’t have much awareness of it at all, and others fall somewhere in between, showing an aesthetic or experiential appreciation for gameplay that supersedes the stakes.

Regardless of where your child registers on the competitiveness continuum, one thing remains constant for all kids learning a game like chess: winning humbly and losing with grace are important skills that can be taught and cultivated from a young age.

Today’s Story Time Chess blog will explore tips, strategies, and research on the topic of sportsmanship in young children. Ready? Last one to the bottom of the page is a rotten egg!

Age Matters

According to Dr. Joe Taravella, Supervisor of Pediatric Psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation, toddlers aren’t really aware of “wins” and “losses,” and many derive satisfaction simply from a shared, turn-taking activity. 

But, of course, we all progress onward from that place of innocence, so as educators and parents it’s crucial that we manage the transition. Turn-based games like Story Time Chess: The Game, are excellent at teaching kids as young as three to self-regulate and play considerately with others. If instilling sportsmanship in your kids is important to you, laying the foundation for it early on is critical.

Crushing Their Spirit is Not the Answer

In the six years that I taught early childhood chess, I never once had a student who didn’t inherently sense that their chess skills were somehow tied to their intellect. If your first thought after losing in chess is that your own lack of smarts brought you down it can be seriously demoralizing. Flexing on your kids every time you play could make them feel that any attempt to improve is futile and might cause them to lose interest altogether.

We don’t want that, which is why it’s not just okay but encouraged to throw the occasional game! Story Time Chess: The Game includes minigames in every chapter, so if you’re reluctant to take a dive in a full game of chess, you can always tilt a minigame in your child’s favor.

Always Letting Them Win is a Losing Strategy

We’ve all heard some version of it somewhere: losing builds character and encourages improvement. At Story Time Chess, we couldn’t agree more. Letting your child win every game creates just as many problems as constantly wiping them off the board.

That’s because problem solving skills can’t evolve unless they’re put to the test. As a 2016 study from Amherst College concluded, kids who aren’t challenged to complete a task gain unrealistic expectations of their own abilities and may be less likely to ask for help in the future.

Amherst researchers led by Carrie Palmquist, PhD, asked 112 four- and five-year-olds to find hidden objects in a room. Some participants were offered a “rigged” version of the test in which an overly-helpful adult gave them all the answers. Others were given partial assistance but were left to find the objects on their own. The group that received only some clues were grateful for the help; the “rigged” group, on the other hand, didn't seem to register that they had been helped at all.

Handicaps are Helpful

In the case of a parent-child chess game, the youngster knows they’re at a disadvantage. This type of imbalance is why handicapping systems exist, so unevenly matched opponents can still compete fairly. Handicaps also create transparency and preserve everyone’s dignity; if a child manages to eke out a win against a parent under handicapped conditions they won’t be left wondering if the grown-up let them win on purpose.

So how do you handicap a game of Story Time Chess? When playing a full game, you can give your child a head start by leaving your queen or your rooks off the board. You can also implement a “takeback” rule, in which your child can choose three or four moves to do-over if they don’t like the outcome but you, the adult, don’t get any. Or you can impose different victory scenarios, in which the adult can only win by capturing the king, but the child only needs to capture, say, five pieces to win.

Lead by Example

Dr. Taravella advises parents to model the winning and losing behaviors they want to see in their kids. That includes not showboating when you win, and when your child defeats you, demonstrating the right way to lose. Offering a handshake, and saying “good game,” are musts, Taravella says. You can also go a step further by asking questions like: “When I lost that game, did I cry or throw a tantrum? No, of course not! We played and had fun together, and that makes me happy no matter who won or lost.”

Our newly-released Story Time Chess: Level 2 Strategy Bundle reinforces that philosophy in the “Cranky Princess” and “Secret Mission” storylines. In those stories, our characters overcome a great challenge by working together, practicing politeness, and making lifelong friends with their toughest competitors.

Managing Meltdowns

Chess is a tough game, especially for preschoolers, and sometimes you might encounter a tantrum despite your best efforts to prevent one. Dr. Tavarella encourages parents to manage meltdowns with statements like, “Not winning seems to make you feel frustrated…” and then help their kids use words to unpack their distress.

If all else fails, bring up examples of hardship or defeat from your life that put things in context. The only language to avoid would be phrases such as: “No one likes a sore loser.” Instead, reframe things in the positive: “Let’s figure out the best way to behave when we lose a game.”

Post-Game Analysis: Roses and Thorns

Regardless of a game’s outcome, the best thing you can do to help your child improve is involve them in active post-game discussion. In fact, you’re probably already doing this, as a 2013 study of parental engagement in youth sports showed. The current generation of parents is far more invested in their kids’ extracurricular achievement than previous generations.

But improving hard skills shouldn’t be the only goal of a post-game chat. You can also help your child process their feelings. If they eked out a win, congratulate them and build their self-esteem. If your child is taking a loss especially hard, identify moments when they made the right decision or successfully implemented a new skill. In short, discuss the “roses and thorns” of every competitive experience and your child will begin to internalize this healthy, helpful practice far into the future.

In the end, I always found that the best medicine for a child who struggles with winning and losing was almost always the promise of more: more minigames, more full games, more puzzles, more playing. If your child knows you can always set up the pieces and play again, it takes the sting out of losing and keeps post-victory ego trips in check.

The bottom line? Play often, keep your games light-hearted and respectful and vary the winner from time to time.

Also, stick with us! Story Time Chess addresses sportsmanship in nearly every lesson of our award-winning curriculum. Check out Story Time Chess’s Level 2 Strategy Expansion, on sale now, and take the next step toward building a healthy, balanced competitive spirit in your child.