What can we learn from losing?

As parents, we all aspire for our children to succeed in life and are aware that success can be measured in an inordinate number of ways. In Reggio Emilia, children are encouraged to be themselves and to develop independently through their own language of expression. From birth, children are regarded as being capable and competent, full of potential, with a right to be heard and listened to.

If we agree that to succeed is an important aspect of our adult life, but that what we are successful at is of a lesser importance, can we as parents play a role in helping our children to fulfil their potential without exerting undue pressure? Or are we in danger of possibly becoming blind to key achievements which might not appear to be significant?

One central way in which we are able to help children grasp their potential and to fulfil it is to be mindful of the lessons we as adults and as children can learn from losing. Discovering our weaknesses and shortfalls can be unsettling and emotionally challenging for a child, yet ultimately, set-backs help us to grow as individuals, particularly if we begin to understand how to use what we learn from an experience.

At the pre-school age, children can often be heard calling out “I want to be the winner” as they rush up a flight of stairs or “I am the leader” as they encourage friends to follow them in the playground. By contrast, children take pleasure in exclaiming “I am the winner, you are the loser” in group play. In their early years, children are already becoming vocal about a concept of hierarchy and where they wish to exist within a social group.

When you first begin to play a game with a child, from an early age, you will become aware that the foremost goal for the child is to win. With emotional intelligence constantly developing, a child does not only want to win, they need to win. The sense of winning, of gleeful triumph, seems to evoke pride in a child, whilst losing brings a feeling of failure and of anger.

So why is winning so important to a child and how can we channel this competitive nature and enable children to accept defeat gracefully?

Developmental psychologist Susan Harter (Developmental and dynamic changes in the nature of the self-concept – 1988) suggests that “children need to feel a sense of physical or intellectual dominance, to display their strength and skill, to feel strong in relation to other children”, such feelings being linked to self-esteem. Harter considers “winning and boasting [to] offer temporary relief from feelings of failure and envy” whilst “younger children have not yet emerged from the age of illusion, the age when children are not yet expected to fully understand the idea of rules.”

If we recall the approach in Reggio Emilia, regarding children as competent and capable, then a strict enforcement of rules would not respect the right of a child to explore, to research and to learn for themselves. Instead, to enable a child to become a free thinker and to develop emotional maturity, the ability to accept defeat should only be learned through practice and emulation, not instruction.

As children play games, familiar emotions, anxiety and frustration, alongside moments of excitement will be apparent, but by acknowledging these feelings and by expressing them ourselves, we show a child that losing is part of everything we do in life and that cheating will not help us to achieve our goals.

We might wish to let a young child win a game occasionally, but if a child never loses, then they will not learn how to deal with disappointment and how to accept the limitations of their own skills or the nature of chance. Children need to be reminded that there is a beauty and a resilience in picking yourself back up when you fall down. That helping friends, even opponents when they stumble, is a healthy attitude to competition; it is about camaraderie and being respectful of a shared desire to achieve the same goal.

Every world class athlete will have suffered defeat in their career, but what makes them the best in the world is their ability to look past what has happened and to focus on now. Instead of looking back, they continue on a pathway to success. If we always allow our children to win in their early years, they will never learn the resilience or the strength to deal with the adversity to be encountered along their own pathway to adulthood.


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