Why Kids Hate Losing Games at Church

I was a new children's pastor leading our summer camp.  Now it was the last day of the camp.  I had divided the camp into 2 teams and they had been competing all week to earn points for their team through different contests and activities.  

And now I was about to announce the "winner" of the week long contest.  Both teams leaned in intensely to hear the result.  

When I announced the "winning" team, one side of the room jumped up and begin to exclaim their joy for being the winning team. 

What I didn't anticipate was the reaction of the "losing" team.  They begin to shout out their disappointment with great anguish.  Some of the losing team even began crying. 

The big takeaway for me was apparent.  Kids hate losing games.  Even at church.  Let's look at why.

Dr Sally Beville, a clinical associate professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, says around age 5, kids start remembering the "rules" for games.  Rules are important to kids and it takes all of their mental energy to keep those rules.  

Dr. Chris Moore, a professor in psychology at Dalhousie University, says that children learn to self-regulate their feelings in preschool and early elementary, but they are still trying to figure out fairness.  This is why you will often hear kids say "that's not fair."  Fairness is a big, big deal to them. 

Strong feelings about games are typical for kids and so the question is, "how can we help them regulate those feelings?"

One approach is to explain that you are going to play a game where someone is going to win and someone is going to lose and that's not always easy.  Let them know you don't like losing as well and when you lose it doesn't feel good either.  Explain to the children that this is something most people deal with and even though you may not be able to regulate the feeling, you can take a deep breathe and remind yourself that you can handle it.

Here are some other approaches I have used over the years.

Remind them before you begin the game, that someone is going to win.  But if you are on the team that doesn't win, show your appreciation for the other team and congratulate them.  This helps curb some of the "sore loser" attitudes that can emerge.  And have the winning team cheer for the other team for their effort.

Praise their efforts.  Remind kids that doing your best is what matters most.  Have the other team cheer for them.

Use this as a time to teach kids about kindness.  Teach them to congratulate the other team and treat them with kindness, even when they lose and are upset.

Focus on the fun.  Help kids focus more on the fun they had playing the game, not on who won or lost.  Of course, no one plays to lose.  But don't let that stop them from enjoying the game or activity.  Remind kids to not get so intense at winning that they don't enjoy it or don't have fun. 

Work toward a common cause and remind the kids of this.  Here's an example.  For many years, I did an "offering contest" during VBS.  We had a set of scales and each day kids would pour their offering into their team's bucket and we would see which bucket was heavier.  

At the end of the week, we announced which team that had brought in the most offering. And we also celebrated the total amount of money that everyone had raised together for missions.  The kids on both teams responded well to this approach.

Have a consolation prize.  This is one of the most effective means that I have used.  Here's an example. 

Let the teams know that the winning team will get 2 prizes and the other team that doesn't come in first place will get 1 prize for participating.  I know what many of you are thinking - that's the whole "everyone is a winner" approach and sets kids up for not learning how to deal with losing.  I understand this, but I also believe it is a good approach to help kids see that even when you don't win, the win is that you did your best. 

Your turn. 

Do you use competition in your lessons or activities?  What does that look like?

How do you help kids to not be "sore losers?"

What do you think about giving a consolation prize for the kids who don't come in first place?

How do you help kids display kindness, even when they don't win?  

Share your thoughts and insights in the comment section below.