Why finishing 4th beats winning

Winning is great!

We love it when our kids win a game or a race.

It’s great to see their faces light up when they win.

Winning is a good feeling.

Winning means they’re doing well. It’s equated with success.

It’s a good habit to develop.

…… or so the theory goes.

I beg to differ.

Winning is just one story.

Not winning carries emotion, but it’s not necessarily positive. Kids usually experience disappointment, annoyance and frustration – all unpleasant emotions.

But it’s good for children and young people to experience unpleasant feelings from time to time.

It’s good to learn that bad feelings happen, but they don’t last. That things don’t always go your way. This is a huge life lesson.

Not winning also teaches kids to link success with effort. It teaches them that perseverance pays off eventually.

Helping kids accept setbacks and unpleasant emotions rather than block them out isthe key to building their resilience.

What about the child who never wins?

Some children seem to never win, or hardly ever do. One of my kids always seemed to have 4th place sewn up in any race – just missing a ribbon – except if he was trying to get into a four person relay team. He’d usually finish 5th.

As a caring parent it was hard work keeping his chin up year after year. But that’s what you have to do.

He eventually stopped doing some of the activities where he struggled in, replacing them with school subjects, sports and activities that more suited his interests and abilities.

But not before he learned the value of struggle.

As an adult he can now articulate the disappointment he felt coming close but never quite hitting the winner’s circle; but he can see the value of hanging in there long after others gave up. That’s possibly due in part to temperament, but I suspect in part due to some valuable lessons from not winning, or coming close, when he was young.

He knows persistence is one of his strongest assets.

So if you have a child who continually comes 4th (figuratively as well as literally) here are some strategies you can focus on:

  • Encourage liberally: Stanford University professor Carol Dweck (who has written a great deal about this very topic) encourages parents to use process praise (“you used smart strategies”, “you worked hard on that one”, “you thought long and hard to work that problem out.”). She says this helps kids value effort and work for longer-term results.
  • Focus on struggles, not just on victories: Your focus as a parent reveals your values. If you value effort and struggle then you need to be on the lookout for these so you can applaud them. If winning is all you value, then you’ll focus on that. There is a choice.
  • Share stories of struggle and overcoming adversity: Whether it’s stories from your own life (kids to love to hear when their parents struggled) or stories from news, public or sporting life inspire and encourage kids with the narratives of the struggles of others.

It’s easy as a parent to get caught in the winning trap. We sometimes just get carried along with the hype.

But maybe finishing 4th is better for kids in the long-term than always being a winner.