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How you can help your preschooler be a good sport

Being a good sport is often a difficult skill for preschoolers to learn.
Being a good sport is often a difficult skill for preschoolers to learn.

An otherwise happy child, four-year-old Joey burst into tears at a friend's birthday party when he was tagged out in a game of dodge ball. Distraught at having to leave the game, his tears quickly turned into a tantrum when he could not "try" again.

Joey's melt down is not an unusual occurrence in young children who view winning as everything and losing as a failure.

"For a 3- or 4-year-old, the world is very black and white," Wendy Middlemiss, PhD, associate professor of education psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton, told "Preschoolers tend to think that if they play to win, then they should win, and that makes it hard to come to terms with losing."

It’s understandable then, that losing gracefully is a difficult social skill for preschoolers to acquire. Here are four tips to help you help your child ease the way from poor loser to good sport:

Create Situations That Allow Your Child to Win -- and Lose
Practice does make perfect and you can help your child learn how not to be a sore looser by playing a variety of games with him. Board games, sports, even a challenge to see who can clean their room first provide opportunities that will let your child experience the satisfaction of winning, but will also help him realize he cannot win every time.

Focus on the Effort and Not the Results
As you play with your child, reinforce the fun you are having just sharing the activity with her. Praise her skills and remind her how much she has improved since the last time you played together. When you talk to your child about a sports event she participated in, do not focus on who won, but rather on the fun she had playing the game and being with her teammates. Compliment her for running the bases well or making a good catch, and then remind her that what really matters is that both teams were doing their best.

Emphasize the Importance of Playing by the Rules
Young children often want to change the rules when they sense they are losing. They might want another roll of the dice or say the game piece slipped off the board or that a swing at the baseball didn't count -- all ploys we've heard from a child who sees a win slipping away. It is important for your preschooler to understand that cheating and poor sportsmanship take away from the fun of the game for all the players and that if he keeps trying to change the rules, he may find that his friends do not want to play with him. To ward off such behavior, ask your child to agree that everyone will play by the established rules before you start the game. Shake on it and then gently remind him of his promise if he falls back on old behaviors.

Be a Good Role Model
Whether you are a spectator or a participant in an organized sport, you set an example for your child to follow. Don't yell at umps or refs at your child's games or at professional sports events. Don't belittle your opponents or less than stellar team members. Don't criticize refs' calls or players when watching sports on TV. Do teach your child to respect her coaches and game officials. Encourage her to praise her teammates and recognize the achievements of her opponents. Teach her as much as by what you do as by what you say.

With patience and understanding and a willingness to listen to your child's feelings about winning and losing, you can provide the support and guidance your preschooler needs to become a good sport.

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