This is the last in a series of six articles about raising boys to be good sports.

I wouldn’t consider this series on good sportsmanship to be complete without saying at least a few words about family game nights—those hotbeds of rivalry disguised as interludes of filial togetherness. The problem of course isn’t in being competitive; it’s in displaying it in ways that ruin a good time. On the other hand, no one wants another one of those “Everybody’s a winner!” contests. Parents and other caregivers can be instrumental in shaping their family’s culture surrounding games, sports, and other competitive activities. In particular, those who are able to model a light-hearted, playful competitiveness will be living proof to their kids that, as contenders, we humans can be keen and ambitious and enterprising—and victorious—without needing to resort to all that ugly stuff.

One key to keeping game night fun is making it clear that unsportsmanlike behavior won’t be tolerated. That seems to go without saying, but I find that many parents wait too long to address behavior they don’t like. Too few speak up right at the first thing they see or hear that’s unpleasant. Hoping that the foul remark or sneer was just an isolated event, parents instead try to ignore it and hope everyone else will too. 

A big problem with this “wait and see” approach is that the bad sport learns that unsportsmanlike behavior is tolerated, as long as it’s swift and brief and infrequent. In addition, the person to whom the bad sportsmanship was directed learns that his/her parents are more interested in keeping the illusion of a fun, peaceful game night than they are of holding the bad sport accountable for his behavior and for the impact of that behavior on the family.

When parents do speak up, it’s usually along the lines of, “Hey, Dan, settle down.” This may get Dan to ease off for a few moments, only to have him start ramping up again within minutes. It’s usually said while the game is in play, and therefore easy for the boy to ignore. That’s why I recommend that you actually stop the game while speaking to your son. It’s only for a few moments, but it creates a different dynamic in the room, and makes it harder for him to hide behind the game action. Stopping the game is important because it underscores the point you’re trying to make, which is something along the lines of, Dude, we’re having a good time and are not interested in … having to tip toe around your bad mood / … watch you gloat /  … listen to you curse every time you pick a card you don’t like. You need to know that I’m willing to interrupt the evening in order to make it stop.

Parents often tell me that they do “something” along these lines. But unless their “something” stops the action going on in the room and gets everyone’s attention, it will not be strong or compelling enough to result in a behavior change. Kids who are behaving poorly but allowed to continue doing what they are doing will stay (or feign being) absorbed in the activity at hand. They avoid making eye contact and imply future compliance by not saying anything in defiance of what the parent has just said. The parent, relieved to not have been handed back an argument, is satisfied with the child’s silent response, and cheerily returns to the game, only to have the drama repeat.

Stopping the game momentarily does something else helpful, too: it makes the child feel a little self-conscious, which is a disincentive in its own right. After all, game play has been held up so that he can be corrected. Everyone is looking, watching, waiting. In their heads, they’re saying C’mon, let’s go, and the boy knows it. It’s uncomfortable for him, and he won’t be eager to find himself in that position again. It’s important to not make too big a deal of the issue, as well as to not purposefully embarrass your son. That’s shaming, and shame just makes people mad, never better.

Families have varying comfort levels when it comes to competitiveness and displays of playful aggression, but most are on the same page when it comes to distinguishing between self-assurance and bad sportsmanship. You should feel free to shut down anything that sounds nasty or that wipes the smile off of someone’s face. Being “hungry” and wanting to win does not have to come at another person’s expense. The good news for those of us who enjoy the pre-game banter is that it still leaves plenty of room for colorful displays of overweening confidence, swaggering conceit, and brazen, shameless trash-talk.

— Janet Sasson Edgette