By Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman
One of your children gets picked for the travel softball team and the other one doesn't. The child that did not get picked, pouts. What do you say now?
Your teen played in the championship game and her team lost. She walks of the field dejected. She sits in the car silently. What do you say now?
Your son's best friend wins the school spelling bee. Your son was one of the finalists. He walks past the winner with his head down. What do you say now?
Five students in government class get picked to go watch a movie with the seniors. Your daughter is one of the students who was not chosen and had to stay back with the rest of the class and do the regular work. She complains about it at the dinner table. What do you say now?
Your daughter spent hours working on her science fair project. When you arrived at the fair, you notice that her efforts were not rewarded with a ribbon. You overhear her gossiping about one of the winning entries. What do you day now?
Your son and many others were tested at Tae Kwon Do to see if they qualified to receive a new belt. He is one who did not pass the test. He is discouraged and wants to quit. What do you say now?
In each of these cases the next words that come out of your mouth are critical. What do you say? What Parent Talk is useful? How do you help your child deal with the reality of competition, winning and losing, disappointment, and frustration? See the Response Quiz below for possible answers.
Which of the flowing twelve answers, in your opinion, would be helpful words to say in the situations described above? Answer key will follow.
"Life is not fair. You're going to have to deal with it."
"Winning and losing are a part of competition. It comes with the territory."
"Just hang in there. Your day will come, probably sooner than you think."
"You should feel good for your friend. Go over there and congratulate him."
"It's not whether you win or lose. It's how you play the game."
"Don't take it personally. It's not about you. It says more about them than it does about you."
"There are a lot of reasons why people don't get picked. It's not always about how much effort you put it."
"If I was picking, you would have gotten a ribbon. It's clear to me you did a good job."
"This is a good life lesson. Better to learn it now than later."
"You should feel proud of your effort. You know on the inside what you did. Let that be good enough."
"Snap out of it. It's just a game."
"You'll always be a winner in my book."
We suggest you say none of the answers above. None of them are helpful, appropriate, or nurturing during this time of disappointment, anger, or frustration. Instead lead with empathy. Your child is in the midst of strong emotion. Reassuring, advising, teaching, and explaining are not useful here. Your child will not hear you.
Begin with an empathetic response. "You seem disappointed," "That can sure be frustrating," or "Being on the short end isn't always easy, is it?" honors the child's feelings. It helps them feel heard.
If they speak, paraphrase what they said. If they say, "My project was a lot better than hers," reply, "In your mind you deserved a ribbon." If they say, "Jason got picked because his uncle is the coach," respond with, "You think the decision was based on more than ability."
If they give you no words, describe what you see. "You seem rather quiet back there," "That looks like frustration I see on your face," or "Your whole body looks dejected."
Once you have used your nurturing voice to offer an empathetic response you can move to your teaching stance. Get permission to do that first. You can gain that permission by asking, "Do you want to talk about it more?" or "Do you prefer to just sit with your feelings some more?" If they do not want to talk right now, respect that choice. Debriefing can come later.
When the feeling level has subsided your child is more receptive. Now you can activate your teaching voice. Here is where you can ask clarifying questions, share perspectives, and offer important lessons.
This is the best time to discuss how competition works, why judges have different points of view, or the choices we have about how to use these life lessons. This is the prime time to help your child learn that what matters most is how they feel inside about their effort, project, or performance. This is where the discussion of winning and losing, the nature of good sportsmanship, and celebration of others' accomplishments will have the most meaning.
This is the time to have that important discussion about developing an inner critic, one that knows you best.
Comparing yourself to yourself is more useful that comparing yourself to others. That is an important lesson to help our children learn. Attempting to deliver that message to a crying, sad or angry child is a waste of time both yours and theirs.
Again, the best time to teach this and other important lessons is after you have nurtured with empathetic responses and the child is no longer in the midst of strong emotion.
Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman are the authors of Parent Talk Essentials. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free Uncommon Parenting blog. To obtain more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their website today: www.uncommon-parenting.com.