Watching my 9-year old daughter compete in a Spelling Bee at her school, I was reminded of some critical life lessons that we could all learn from a competition like this one. As the number of syllables in the words increased, the number of kids on the stage decreased. It dawned on me that these kids were learning an invaluable lesson. They were getting
Sometimes you could see a contestant struggling, and he or she would ask the moderator: “Could you use that in a sentence?” It’s a classic stall tactic. Heck, that’s what I would have done.
Receptacle. A noun. Meaning: A container that holds items or matter. Used in a sentence, The boy exclaimed, ‘Two points!’ after throwing a piece of wadded up paper into the trash receptacle.
Had it been my word, I’d have said, “Receptacle. C-A-N. Receptacle.” But no one asked me.
As more and more kids misspelled words and left the stage, it dawned on me that these kids were very good losers.
Being a “good winner” isn’t nearly as relevant in life as being a good loser.
Kids need to hear things like, “I am proud of you for going your best” instead of “I am proud of you for winning.” You can do your best every day, but let’s be honest: You can’t win every day.
When praise is reserved for winning only and not efforts as well, you foster a winning is everything mindset. Which can foster a win-at-all-costs mindset. Which can cause problems.
I went to school with many brilliant kids whose high-digit IQ scores mirrored the number a bathroom scale would register if a heavyweight boxer jumped on it. One such friend told me that he had always been the smartest, always had the highest grades in high school. But in college, the standards got higher and the general population seemed smarter. My friend found that his intelligence no longer set him apart from the crowd, and he lamented that he almost felt—gulp—average! He had never learned to fail, because he had never experienced failure.
So he cheated. He cheated, got caught, and then cut from med school, derailing his dream of practicing medicine. He would have been better served if he had experienced losses earlier in life.
Learn to lose early, often, and with style.
I loved watching the faces of each kid when they were told in turn something like, “No, sorry. You were very close. But the word is spelled…”.
No, I don’t have any repressed sadistic tendencies. But I enjoyed watching how they lost. No one cried. No one ran off stage with a red face. No one mouthed 4-letter words that have no place at a Spelling Bee. Most of them just shrugged their shoulders, nodded their heads, and even managed to smile before exiting the stage. When the final word was spelled and a winner declared, all of the kids clapped as if they had each won the Bee themselves.
These kids will be much easier to live with when they reach adulthood because of the experiences they’ve gained with losing.
Become familiar with disappointment.
Losing teaches graciousness, maturity, and poise. Don’t shield your children from learning traits that will make them awesome, successful adults.
So instead of letting my kids win board games at home, I would use losing as an opportunity to teach. When I would beat my oldest daughter at a game, I would tell her something like this:
Alana, just because you lost doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or a bad player. It just means that I was a little better this time. Every time we play, you are one game closer to beating me.
Losses turn into wins.
I started playing chess with my son shortly after he was out of diapers. For 7 years, I reigned supreme. And then something happened: he beat me. I mean he beat me fair and square. I could say that I was distracted, I was tired, the Sun was in my eyes. But no. He beat me, because he was good. He was better than me. And do you know what we did after that? We celebrated.
Do you know what made him a good winner? Seven years of gracious losing. For seven years, each time I won I would say to him, “Good game, buddy.” And he would say back, “Thanks. Good game to you, too, dad.”
But when he beat me for the first time, he tilted his head and smiled slowly:
“I’ve been waiting a long time to say this to you first: Good game, dad.”
My eyes filled with tears, and I whispered back to him, “Good game, buddy.” I then muttered something about cutting his allowance, but I didn’t mean it.
At the end of the Spelling Bee when I scanned the faces in a room full of good losers, I knew that I was seeing the next generation of great winners.
Tomorrow: Success. T-R-Y. Success.
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I have failed often. I was a late bloomer and something I noticed when I was in my forties was that I had some friends who had always excelled. They were successful in their Army careers with all glowing performance appraisals and rapid promotions. Then one day things didn’t work out as expected and they were crushed. There’s something to be said for “getting up one more time than you are knocked down” (John Wayne in McClintock). If you never fail, you never learn how to get back up.
Good lesson, Scott.
I love the John Wayne quote! And goof for us, right? We lost early and often enough to make loss a part of business as usual. Those lessons primed us to win eventually.