Kids' health

'Kids Jeopardy!' controversy offers lesson in losing

Aug. 5, 2013 at 5:44 PM ET

Video: An eighth-grader from Connecticut is saying he was cheated on the television trivia show “Jeopardy” after a spelling error caused him to miss the final question. But the show’s producers say that they’re standing by the judges and host Alex Trebek.

Losing sucks. And it is tough watching your child lose at something he really wants to win. But teaching your children to handle loss with grace can help them become resilient adults.

That’s what some child psychology experts would like Thomas Hurley III and his mother to understand. After the 12-year-old “Kids Jeopardy!” contestant misspelled the Final Jeopardy answer, Emancipation Proclamation, last week he was eliminated, earning him the runner-up position.

Hurley later said he felt “cheated” in an interview with the Danbury’ Conn. New-Times, saying: “It was just a spelling error." His mother also seemed to have a hard time accepting the disqualification. “It’s generated a little bit of controversy,” she told the newspaper, referring to negative comments on the Jeopardy! Facebook page.

Even without the error, Hurley wouldn’t have clinched first place, because contestant Skyler Hornback wagered more money.

It’s understandable that Hurley was upset after coming so close, but more important than winning is accepting the loss, experts say.

“When we have the opportunity to succeed and there is a lot riding on our performance, it is disappointing [when we lose]. The important point is to think about what we are going to do differently the next time around,” explains Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and author of the book “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To.”

Her research indicates that when people focus on the negatives, they are more likely to make mistakes during the next performance. And the pessimistic emotions use up brainpower that could be devoted to being better prepared or improving.  

Parenting experts agree that parents can help their children lose with class, which will help them as they negotiate life.

“Feeling disappointed is absolutely natural,” explains Amy McCready, TODAY Moms contributor and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.

“It’s what you do with that disappointment. Do you wallow in it or move on?”

McCready recommends that parents validate their children’s feelings when they don’t get the “A” on the science experiment or miss the game-winning goal. But, then parents should focus on the positives.

“Whatever the situation is, focus on the effort [your child] put forth … that is something to be proud of,” she says.

Susan Newman, author and parenting expert, agrees that emphasizing the successes allows a child to cope with losing.

“No matter what happens, you have succeeded beyond most kids in the entire country. So that’s where you put your focus [as a parent].”

And, parents can reframe how they talk to their kids to lessen the focus on winning.

“I hear parents say ‘did you win or lose,’” Newman explains. “Ask the child to focus on the success along the way.”

Parents can help their children understand how to lose by not allowing them to only win. Take board games, for example. Many parents allow their children to go first and let them win. These kids always expect to win. This can create problems for them as children—no one wants to be friends with the kid who always has to win—and later as adults—no one wants a coworker who throws temper tantrums.

“What are we trying to foster … that kids are victims or sometimes things happen [that we don’t like]?” says McCready? 

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