All the questions and answers come directly from Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood-A Handbook for Parents, Teachers and Caregivers by Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper.
Q: I am a home daycare provider with six children in my care. This summer, my program was overwhelmingly full of boys, and some new issues have come up.
One of the boys currently at my home who is five years old has the hardest time when playing games, if he is not the one always ahead and the winner. He wants to play organized game such as football, baseball, dinosaur checkers, etc., but he storms off if anyone gets slightly ahead of him.
I explain that one of the boys is almost two years older than him, and therefore has had two year’s more experience than he has. The other boys who range in age from four to six back me up with this and try to help me explain this to the boy. The other kids tell him, “No one wins all of the time.” He gets so upset, quits the game and vows never to come back here. What do you suggest we say or do to help him?
A: This is a striking example of a child with a strong appetite for competitive games that is powered not by love of playing but by a desperate need to succeed. As a result he must win in order to feel worthwhile. Losing or even falling behind confirms all his fears of being inadequate and causes him to feel unbearable pain.
It is no wonder that his response to this misery is the wish to leave and not come back. Because he is not in control of this vicious circle, efforts to get him to consider the inevitability of defeat are doomed to fail. Even when he wins, his relief will be short-lived, as his underlying insecurity continues unabated, and the specter of losing continues to loom on his horizon.
The kindest and most helpful thing to do for this child is to encourage him to pursue activities that are consistently enjoyable and allow him to feel in control of a successful outcome. Activities that would be good for this boy would be non-competitive.
We suggest that you tell him in a friendly and non-judgmental manner that for now you are going to find something else for him to do when the other children are playing sports. Explain that since his response to losing is to feel terrible about himself it would be better not to play these games, until he can feel comfortable inside when he doesn’t win.
Because you are helping him and not punishing him, do try to find a non-competitive substitute activity that he will truly enjoy, such as painting or building. We would emphasize that since this child’s central problem is his insecurity, he may react even to non-competitive activities by feeling inadequate.
For example, he may say that the picture he painted “stinks.” However, it will be easier to help him feel good about his effort in a context where there are no clear winners and losers.
In general the greatest gift you can give this boy is to relate to him in a manner that tells him he is likeable, liked just for himself and respected as a capable, competent person. In this way you will make a real contribution to his future emotional well-being.