Everyone faces failure, and what we say to our kids is important. Learn what to avoid when your child loses a competition (and what to say instead).
Your child is excited to enter a gymnastics competition this weekend. She has her props prepared and her outfit hanging on the door, and her confidence is through the roof. She 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.
She’s devastated, to say the least. She turns to you for comfort, and wants to know what happened.
What do you say?
5 things you shouldn’t say when your child loses a competition
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That was the scenario painted in the book Mindset by psychology professor Carol Dweck.
No doubt about it: 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 end up doing more harm than good. We offer reassuring words that actually send the wrong message about grit, resilience, and perseverance.
So, back to the question: What do you say? What do you tell your child after a loss crushed her expectations and she flat out failed?
Let’s start with phrases we shouldn’t say. According to Dweck, these well-meaning phrases do little to teach kids about failure and its aftermath:
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 he didn’t do his best.
He might have expected to win even though he didn’t put in the work. He may not have practiced as often as he could have, nor practice deliberately. He went through the motions. Wanting something “so bad” but with halfhearted practice doesn’t mean doing his best.
Before doling out this advice, ask yourself if he really did his best. Telling him that he did (when he didn’t) shuts the door for future improvement. He has little opportunities to actually win when he thinks this is the best he can do.
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 child that 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 heart, 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 is an act of blame. And blaming only relieves ourselves of the responsibility to improve, learn, and change.
Sure, sometimes an activity is too hard for a child’s age or experience. I can’t imagine a young toddler trying to solve a 50-piece puzzle yet, or a beginner to master a black belt on the first try.
But most of these activities are feasible. And what message does that send when other kids can do it but she can’t? You’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 have more practice, 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 practice. But saying it’s too hard for him limited his view of what he was capable of doing from the start.
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Mistake 4: “It didn’t really matter”
We tell our kids “It doesn’t really matter,” or “Winning wasn’t a big deal” as a way to brush it aside.
But here’s the thing: It was a big deal. Especially to your child, 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 her that what she strove for doesn’t matter devalues it the minute she doesn’t win. It implies that her interests are only important if she wins. Because let’s face it, you wouldn’t say “It’s no big deal” had she 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 that you don’t know if she’ll win next time. You can’t guarantee she’ll win. Wishful thinking and reassurances do little to get her to the point of achieving her goals. Winning the competition isn’t something she can control or guarantee.
So… if none of these phrases address your child’s failures correctly, what will help her lose gracefully? Two things:
1. Acknowledge your child’s 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 acknowledge their feelings and give them the opportunity to sort through disappointment and hurt. “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 her sit with the emotions she’s entitled to feel. She’ll know that, however painful it is, that it’s normal. Most importantly, she’ll learn how to cope with the discomfort of losing and pick herself back up.
2. “Let’s see where you can improve”
Be honest with yourself: 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 she realizes that she’s not entitled to anything, she’s more likely to try harder.
The thing is, it’s not about practicing longer—help her see where she can actually improve. Trying again and again doing the same thing isn’t going to get her any further. Practicing once a week or not considering constructive feedback won’t change the circumstances.
But let’s say you observe her flaws and point them out. You show her different techniques on how to master them, and provide her with enough time to do that. Her chances of winning the blue ribbon will be greater then.
Failure is uncomfortable and inevitable, but a necessary part of our lives.
Help your child see that mistakes are okay, and failure as a cue to try harder (not as a sign that she doesn’t have the ability to succeed).
Don’t buffer failure by offering untrue words that don’t help. She didn’t do her best, the competition wasn’t too hard, and it did matter to her. Winning next time isn’t guaranteed, nor should she feel reassured that she’s “still number one” to you.
Instead, what she needs first is empathy, and for her feelings to be acknowledged. And second, the truth about what it takes to win, how to improve, and the opportunity to do so.
Then maybe the goal isn’t about just winning, but in being better today than she was yesterday.
p.s. Check out The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi, all about the power of grit and perseverance:
Get more tips:
- Why You Shouldn’t Reward Your Kids All the Time
- 6 Reasons to Stop Labeling Kids
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
- How to Teach Our Kids to Embrace Mistakes
- How to Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
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