You’re in the game aisle at the store, visualizing the wonderful memories you’ll create with your family during Game Night. You bring the game home and reality hits:
“I hate this game!”
“It’s not fair!”
“I’m not playing anymore!” Swish, and the game goes flying.
Hard to believe, but board games have great learning potential for kids. Depending on the game, kids can develop valuable skills: sequencing, planning, problem-solving, direction following, waiting/turn-taking/delay of gratification, teamwork, and resilience when things don’t go their way.
Oops. That last one, perhaps the most valuable skill of all, is where it often falls apart and ends badly with parents wondering, “Why did I think this would be a fun family activity? Let’s remember not to do this again!” If parents imply this by their words or actions, kids may believe, “I’m too big a problem for my parents to handle.”
We believe that any child can learn the resilience to lose respectfully, but parents need significant insight, wisdom and grace to effectively help their child. The Connected Families Framework will guide us through this challenge. (These ideas can be adapted for kids who struggle with sportsmanship in athletics as well.)
Foundation: Identify what’s going on in me
An essential starting place is for parents to consider their example. Do I model losing well? Do I imply people are more valuable when they succeed or win?
Parents can also consider their judgments. What am I believing about my child who struggles with losing? What do I think to myself, or say about my child to others? i.e. “She acts like such a baby when she loses.” “He just ruins it for everyone.”
Underlying judgments about a child get communicated subtly by parents’ responses. Over time these judgments build identity in a child: “I am such a loser,” or “I’m the one that’s always in trouble.” This dynamic keeps everyone stuck.
Foundational beliefs that help a family get unstuck are: “We are all learning and growing. God’s grace is bigger than our conflicts. We can work on this together.”
Connect: Communicate unconditional love
The connect principle leads us to mentor kids’ beliefs about a person’s unconditional value, more than manage kids’ behavior about losing. You can ask your child questions before the game. “If you win, does that mean I’ll love you more? If you lose, are you less valuable?” Work to weave this principle into everyday family interactions.
Coach: Mentor values and skills
Identify your child’s “gift gone awry.”
What might be a good gift that contributes to your child’s difficulty? Maybe she likes to succeed, participates wholeheartedly, is passionate or expressive. You can identify that gift, “You really play with all your heart, don’t you? That makes it harder when you lose, but it’s a really good gift in many ways.” (Then name some ways you’ve noticed that good gift.) “I’ll bet you could use that intensity to help solve our board game challenges.”
Teach character over success
You can also help kids understand that there are multiple types of “winners:” game winners, effort winners, and attitude winners. We can’t always control if we win a game, but we can control our effort and attitude. (You may need to work with a child who is a boastful winner as well.) A great video about this for competitive kids is Brett Ledbetter’s TED talk: Building Your Inner Coach. Help kids embrace the benefit of being resilient when they lose and being respectful at all times. Let them know, “We can always be a winner – especially when we are winning at losing.”
Find the “just right challenge”
The bigger the stakes and the longer the game, the harder it is to lose. What’s a good length game for your child to practice respectful winning/losing? You can start with dice rolling, tic-tac-toe, or quick card games and help a child feel successful at being resilient and respectful when they lose. Then remind them of their success as you gradually try longer games.
Help kids face their reality
As you’re ready to play a longer board game, the following types of questions may be helpful: How many people will be playing the game? How many people can win? How likely is it that you will win? If this doesn’t go well for you, how do you want to respond? Do you think you’re ready to play this game?
Focus on whatever goes better
During the game, notice any calm responses to setbacks, good teamwork, positive character or process. Affirm any small improvement when a child loses. “You used strong words, but kept the board and cards safe this time. That took some self-control!”
Correct: Kids make right what they’ve made wrong
If a child does damage either to the game or the feelings of other players, you can hold them accountable to solve the problem they’ve created after they’ve calmed down! You can put other privileges on hold until they are ready to make it right, by cleaning up/repairing the game, or reconciling with those they’ve hurt.
When parents take the time and energy to thoughtfully guide their struggling child, that child gets important messages: “I’m worth the effort, I can learn and grow, my parents are stronger than my challenges.” These are pretty important messages to build into your intense child!
Give it a shot playing board games with your kids, and let us know how it goes. You just might be building important skills and identity for the game of life!