Everyone faces failure—and what we say to our kids is so important. Discover what to avoid when your child loses a competition (and what to say instead).
Your daughter is excited to enter a gymnastics competition this weekend. She’s got her ribbons prepped and her outfit hanging on the door. And her confidence is through the roof: She just knows she’ll win first place. She’s been practicing for weeks, although, admittedly, not as much as she could.
The big day arrives, and she performs. But despite her weeks of practice, she didn’t win first place. In fact, she failed to win any ribbons at all.
Your daughter is devastated. She turns to you for comfort, and wants to know what happened.
What do you say?
That was the scenario painted in psychology professor Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset (affiliate link). It’s hard when your child loses a competition. We do our best to console our kids, lift their spirits and encourage them to keep trying when they fail.
Except… sometimes we don’t do a good job doing that. We offer reassuring words that actually send the wrong message about grit and perseverance.
5 mistakes to avoid when your child loses a competition
So, back to the question: What do you say? What do you tell your daughter after a loss crushed her expectations and she flat out failed?
Mistake 1: “You did your best”
I was shocked when I read this wasn’t always an appropriate response. Isn’t doing your best a sign that you at least tried all that you could? That you couldn’t perform any higher than what you did?
Sometimes. But other times, your child lost because she didn’t do her best. In the example above, the little girl expected to win without actually putting in the work. She didn’t practice as often as she could have, nor did she practice deliberately. She went through the motions.
Desire for a blue ribbon with halfhearted practice doesn’t mean she did her best. Wanting something so bad doesn’t mean doing your best.
Before doling out this advice, ask yourself if your child really did her best. Telling her she did when she didn’t shuts the door for future improvement.
Mistake 2: “You’re still Number One to me”
Our kids will always be number one to us, yes, but…this isn’t about you.
Telling your daughter she’s still first place in your heart places too much emphasis on you. That her joy relies on you. And that so long as she’s always got the number one spot in your mind, that all is okay.
And it’s not always okay. She could’ve really, really wanted that first place ribbon. Regardless of whether she’s number one to you.
Mistake 3: “That was too hard anyway”
Whether a competition, a test, or puzzle, saying it’s too hard blames elsewhere.
And sometimes it’s true. I can’t imagine my toddlers attempting to solve a 50-piece puzzle just yet. There truly are challenges that are hard for our age or experience.
But if something is actually feasible, then it’s attainable, right? And what message does that send about your child’s ability when other kids are able to do it but she can’t? We’re saying it’s too hard for her. That other people can win but not her.
I used to do this with my eldest before my husband called me out on it. “Let’s do another worksheet. This one’s too hard for you,” when I’d see him struggling with advanced math problems.
“It’s not too hard for him—he’s just too young for that assignment,” my husband said. “Later, when you’re bigger, maybe next year, it’ll be more appropriate to do that sheet.”
And I realized, yes, I had been sending the wrong message. In due time, he can do this, especially with hard work. But saying it’s too hard for him limited his view of what he was capable of doing.
Mistake 4: “It didn’t really matter”
We tell our kids “It doesn’t really matter,” or “Winning wasn’t a big deal,” but here’s the thing: It was a big deal. Especially to your daughter, who was so excited to win the competition. She hung her costume for a whole week in front of her closet door because she was so excited.
Telling them what they strove for doesn’t matter devalues it the minute they don’t win. We’re saying their interests are only important when they win. Because we all know our tone would’ve been different had they won.
Mistake 5: “I’m sure you’ll win next time”
At first glance this statement seems harmless. Positive, even, as we point to the future and the potential to win.
But these are heavy words to say considering you don’t know if she’ll win next time. You can’t guarantee she’ll win. And wishful thinking and reassurances do little to get her to the point of achieving her goals. Winning the competition isn’t something can can control or guarantee.
So… if none of these phrases address your child’s failures correctly, what helps your child lose gracefully? Two things:
Acknowledge her feelings
Sometimes we dismiss our kids’ emotions too quickly. We want them to get over it fast so we get our cheerful kids right back.
But we need to give them the opportunity to sort through disappointment and hurt. How? Acknowledge their feelings. “Looks like you’re pretty shocked for not winning the blue ribbon,” you might say. “Sometimes we can feel disappointed when we don’t get what we wanted so much.”
“Let’s see where you can improve”
Because no, your child didn’t deserve to win that blue ribbon. Not by a long shot. And not when other kids had years of experience over her, and were practicing much harder than she was.
She did deserve to lose.
That’s a harsh reality, but an important lesson. And when our kids realize they’re not entitled to anything, they’re more likely to try harder.
As parents, we need to help our kids see where they can improve when they fail. Trying again and again doing the same thing isn’t going to get them any further. She can keep practicing just once a week. Or not ask for constructive feedback. If so, not much will improve.
But let’s say her parents and coaches observe her flaws and point them out. They show her techniques on how to master them, and provide her with enough time to do just that. Then her chances of winning the blue ribbon will be greater.
Failure is uncomfortable, inevitable yet necessary in our lives. We can’t master everything perfectly, and as such, I tell my kids that mistakes are okay.
We should teach children to see failure as a cue to try harder, not as a sign that they don’t have the ability to succeed.
Trying to smooth the wrinkles of failure by offering untrue words doesn’t help our kids. They didn’t do their best, the competition wasn’t too hard, and it truly did matter. Winning next time isn’t guaranteed. Nor should they feel reassured that they’re still number one to us.
No, what they need first is empathy, and for their feelings to be acknowledged. And second, the hard truth about what it takes to win, how to improve, and the opportunity to do so.
And that maybe the goal isn’t about just winning, but in being better today than yesterday.
Learn more with these related articles:
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
- How to Teach Our Kids to Embrace Mistakes
- Teaching Resilience and Perseverance: How to Raise Kids with Grit
- How to Properly Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
Tell me in the comments: What do you do when your child loses a competition? How else can kids use failure to improve themselves? How do you reassure your kids when they have failed?