Keys to dealing well with rejection lie in early childhood.
Thousands of parents spent March biting their nails wondering if their children would be admitted to their first choice university. And now that the fat and thin envelopes have been sent, the worry isn't over. Not only are some still waiting as they deal with wait-lists, but there are also many families with a child devastated over not getting a spot at their top college (thousands of them may be from Harvard's applicant pool alone; only 5.8 prcent of the 35,023 applicants received a celebratory email a few weeks ago). What can parents do to help their children deal with this rejection?
As I learned while researching my forthcoming book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, the answer lies in early childhood. The subject of Playing to Win are 95 families with elementary school-age children involved in one of three competitive afterschool activities -- chess, dance, and soccer. Parents believe that by participating in these competitive organized activities, their children are developing a certain type of character.
I call this Competitive Kid Capital and I have identified five skills and lessons that parents want their young children to acquire through participation in competitive activities: (1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) learning how to recover from a loss to win in the future, (3) managing time pressure, (4) performing in stressful environments, and (5) feeling comfortable being judged by others in public.
In thinking about the fallout from college admissions decisions, the second component of Competitive Kid Capital -- learning how to bounce back from a loss -- is especially important. As much as parents, and our society, values winners, we know there is usually only one person at the top. So just as it is important to win, it is important to learn to be a good sport and a gracious loser.
Children in soccer and chess are often taught to shake hands after a game, a practice common in many sports. Obviously when kids independently play sports and other games for fun, even board games, they will lose. However, the public nature of a loss in competitive activities in front of family and friends give the experience a different character.
Children need to learn to be able to deal with a public loss and the feelings of failure or disappointment that may accompany the loss, and then overcome them in order to win in the future. Because competitive activities belong to organizations that keep records, the stakes are higher than in recreational leagues, and children can see that it matters that there is a record of success -- the same way it will matter for those records college admissions officers will see ten years later.
A mom I met explained why her nine-year-old son is involved with tournament chess: "The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You're not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back. Come back and start fresh and they are able to. I'm not saying he doesn't cry once in a while. But it's really such a fantastic skill."
Kids learn the identity of being a winner only by suffering a loss. This father summarizes the sentiment, trying to raise a son to be a winner in life:
This is what I'm trying to get him to see: that he's not going to always win. And then from a competitive point of view, with him it's like I want him to see that life is, in certain circumstances, about winning and losing. And do you want to be a winner or do you want to be a loser? You want to be a winner! There's a certain lifestyle that you have to lead to be a winner, and it requires this, this, this and this. And if you do this, this, this and this, more than likely you'll have a successful outcome.
Handling rejection well is a life skill everyone needs to have -- one of the "this"es -- and it will serve children and young adults well time and again through trials and tribulations that stretch beyond college rejection, or acceptance. But just as kids who started participating in competitive afterschool activities when they are young have a leg up on their competition, these children will also have an advantage as they age because of the Competitive Kid Capital they acquired early in life. This will have helped prepare them to deal with the inevitable rejection they will face someday from college admissions offices, employers, even romantic partners. They can play to win, but face defeat with confidence and grace as well.