I’ll be honest—I never envisioned teaching kids how to lose to be such a vital part of my parenting journey.
Of course, losing is inevitable throughout the course of a lifetime. We all lose at some point. But to think of it as a pillar of parenting right alongside “be a good human” and “love to learn”? It didn’t even cross my mind until my husband brought up one day when my oldest son was just about 2 years old.
He and my husband were playing basketball in the basement one evening before dinner – I didn’t know what was going on, but by the rising sounds of my toddler’s frustration, I could tell they were nearly finished, and it was not going well (for the kid). That’s right, he lost the game. My husband did not let his 2-year-old win.
What came next was a tantrum of epic proportions. There was kicking and screaming and throwing of things. There was crying and pouting and refusing to come upstairs. And I stood in the kitchen, overhearing it all, and silently fumed. Why did my husband have to do this right now? Losing is a part of life, I get it, but he’s 2. The rest of our night routine is going to be ruined; could he have picked a worse time for this lesson?
I stood there fuming as my husband came up the stairs alone; when he saw the disapproval on my face he said, “I know you’re not happy about this. But he’s going to lose a lot in his life. He needs to learn how to lose. And it’s never too early to start.”
In his eyes, I saw the years of his career experience as a football coach—the endless hard work, the constant losing, the grating process of picking yourself up each time. Our son’s life was going to be filled with many losses just by nature of his dad’s job, regardless of the losses of his own life. I knew my husband was right. He would need to learn how to lose—how to get back up with grace, how to learn, how to move forward. So, we started working on it that very day.
It hasn’t been an easy process. There have been many tantrums (him) and tears (him and me), a lot of thrown balls and bats and a few pushed-0ver basketball hoops, but we’ve made good progress. Four years later, my now 6-year-old is a pretty good sport. He doesn’t love to lose (who does?), but he can manage a loss, he can reflect and focus on effort, and he often lets his younger brother win just to see the joy on his face.
Of course, he’s a work-in-progress (we all are), but staying committed to the process of teaching our kids how to lose has been tremendously fruitful. We want them to remember that things don’t always go your way, even when you’ve done it the right way, even when you’ve earned it. It’s not an easy lesson at 5 or 35—it doesn’t always make sense. But loss brings perspective. We learn from it what we could never learn from winning.
This is how we teach our kids to lose gracefully:
1. Start young
Once I understood my husband’s perspective, it was clear that he was on track with this one. We all know our children best, and I knew my son was old enough to handle and learn these lessons at age 2. Our younger son, however, was not at the same place developmentally at 2 years, so we waited until he was ready and instead, focused on smaller parts of losing and being a good sport that was easier for him to grasp at that age.
2. Don’t let them win (all the time)
This is not a popular strategy simply by judging reactions when we mention it to our friends. As parents, we have this instinctual desire to protect our little ones from every type of hardship or hurdle. Of course, we want them to have an easy, stress-free life, but realistically, that’s not a guarantee. But as a family, we decided to prioritize teaching them how to handle struggle and frustration. This means we don’t always let them win.
I hate seeing my kids disappointed, but I’m learning to resist the urge to clear the path for them constantly. I know if I keep trying to shelter them from disappointment, they’ll be less able to handle it as they get older. And while the small losses feel big now, the losses to come in their futures will be on a much larger scale. It’s my responsibility to make sure that they are equipped to deal with it.
3. Validate their feelings
I’m recognizing that teaching them how to lose and having them be OK with losing are two very different things – and that’s OK. It’s very rare that a person enjoys losing. When they’re upset about losing, that’s a valid feeling. I shouldn’t be brushing it off with, “It’s just a game.”
What I can do is teach them that it’s OK to sit in sadness and live with pain and defeat without being rude or outwardly angry towards others. What I can do is show them how to overcome overwhelming emotions and stand back up.
4. Embrace a “practice makes you better” mindset
This is another cue I took from my husband. When our son asked why my husband’s players practice so often, the response he got was, “because practice makes you better.” It stuck with me then, and as we’ve moved through the years with our little boys, I can see how this phrase has shaped their mindsets. I hear a lot of “I gotta go practice, ma!” in regards to everything from sports to drawing to cooking to reading, and it works every time.
What this does is put the emphasis on effort and learning rather than outcome or perfection. Practice will never make you perfect, but it will always make you better.
5. Differentiate between “earning” and “deserving” wins
It’s often said that a winning team “deserved” to win, but as a parent, I’ve begun to see how this can be problematic. Suggesting that one side deserves to win implies that the other team does not—which is more than likely untrue. What’s likely is that both teams deserved to win through effort, practice, and preparation, but one team simply earned the win through scoring more points.
When I talk about wins and losses with my kids now, I try to focus on that distinction. It’s particularly helpful to squash sibling scrabbles—it’s much easier to grasp that one won because they earned more points or had a faster time than attempting to explain that one deserved to win over the other.
6. Avoid using traditional measures of success
One of the biggest changes we’ve made as parents is to re-define success for our children from the way we’d come to know it from our own childhoods and early adult life. Through life and work experiences, we’ve learned that success is not always counted by wins or promotions or good grades. Sometimes, most of the time, success is just showing up day after day and trying again.
I know as they get older this will get more difficult. With sports games and team tryouts and the pressures of academics on kids these days, it’s not going to be easy to resist counting wins and losses. But I know if I emphasize process and effort and attitude over it all, they’ll gain the kind of self-confidence and self-worth that is not reliant on societal measures of success.
7. Look for lessons
Each experience comes with a lesson, it’s just that when we win, we’re less likely to look for them because we’re pleased with the outcome.
Losing pushes us to reflect and pivot or persist. Loss brings growth and a chance to start again. Teaching our kids how to reflect, come up with points of pride that they can hold on to, and objectively see their gaps or areas that need development is an essential life skill.
It’s my privilege as a parent to be able to guide them through this—and I don’t take it lightly.