It IS whether you win or lose

There are a few questions that parents often ask. One is, “Should I let my child win when we play games together?” The answer really depends on what you want your child to learn from gameplay, but it’s usually a “no.” This response is based on my own experience as a therapist and as a parent – I haven’t looked for any research on the topic, but I feel strongly that it’s important for kids to learn how to be good losers as well as good winners. Every child will lose a game at some point, and when parents play with their kids, there is an opportunity to help them cope with disappointment that they’ll experience on the soccer field, at the rink, or on the basketball court.

My own kids used to cheat sometimes because winning was so important to them. When I play, we talk about the importance of following the rules and of fairness. When my children were younger, we typically played games that were based on luck, like chutes and ladders. Sometimes I would win, often one of the kids would. If they lost, they used to get upset – pouting and sometimes, “I don’t want to play anymore,” were common. This was when I realized the importance of helping my kids learn to cope with losing. I started talking to them during the game about how much fun it was, and I’d give them a pat on the back if their turn went well. When I lost, I’d say to my sons, “I feel kind of bad that I didn’t win this time. Can you guys help me to feel better?” They’d give me a hug, or encouragement, or tell me how much fun the game was, or say that I might win next time. Soon, they were saying the same things to one another, and it wasn’t long before it became clear that no one was becoming devastated by losing. They still wanted to win, but they were willing to keep playing if they didn’t.

I feel the same way about organized sports. Keeping score isn’t the most important thing, but it’s not damaging for kids to play competitively. I don’t think that parents should become too competitive, and it’s important for parents to remark on the things their kids did well during the game. It’s sometimes helpful to remind kids of the important parts of the game besides scoring goals. Cheering for their team-mates and having fun are important. Winning is great, but it’s not the only great thing about baseball, basketball, soccer or hockey!

Do you let your kids win every time? Do you agree that playing competivite sports are an important part of a child’s development?

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8 Responses to It IS whether you win or lose
  1. Amy
    March 23, 2009 | 2:26 pm

    When I was in high school I beat my best friend at checkers. I was so ecstatic that his response was, “wow. Your parents sure didn’t let you win, ever, did they?”

    We interviewed Larry Cohen last fall, and I’ve taken a lot of my cues from him in regards to playing games with my kids. With my youngest, he specifies “play easier,” or “play your hardest” as we play. Sometimes he even tells me, “Okay Mom, this time I’ll play easier so you can have a chance to win.” Kids are so different- there are some who would give up quickly if they never got to win, others who would persevere in the face of such a challenge.

    We also enjoy cooperative games- one of my son’s favorites is: and sometimes we change the rules to “play easy” on ourselves, depending on the mood.

  2. brianmacdonald
    March 23, 2009 | 3:29 pm

    It’s important to remember that not all kids are the same – and they need a chance to learn to be gracious as winners AND losers. If my sons asked me to take it easy, I would, and they let one another win sometimes. At only (nearly) 8 and (nearly) 6, they don’t get worked up too much when they lose, and they’re very kind when they win.

    I’m a lucky dad!

  3. The Mother
    March 23, 2009 | 4:32 pm

    I worried, when my kids were young. Dad is highly competitive, and I had been indoctrinated with the idea of non-competitive environments.

    Flash forward 20 years. I have the most competitive family on the planet–kids who can turn Apples to Apples into a full contact sport. But they are also BRILLIANT strategists, at a level that now exceeds their dad.

    I can see that same competitiveness showing up in college, and job interviews.

    Overall, I think it’s all good.

  4. Lisa Stroyan
    March 24, 2009 | 8:10 am

    As a parent coach, I’ve often recommended that parents let their children win against them in games if that seems to be what the child is looking for. They get plenty of losing in the world and even at home (they aren’t “winning” or deciding when to sleep, when to get dressed, whether to leave for appointments, etc – most of the time is still in the parents’ control even when we try to offer a little of it back). Time and time again I’ve seen that having a safe space at home where they get to “win” at a few things helps kids be more compassionate when they grow older, and be willing to understand this need in other, younger children, and carefully let them win too for a little while. Our fear tells us that letting children win will create a monster but my experience is the opposite – they come to see it as something little kids need and then let go of eventually, like a pacifier.

    As another poster said, I’m also a fan of cooperative games or games where children can win in one way, and adults in the other. “You won the race to the car, and I won ‘getting us out the door on time’ – yeay!”

  5. brianmacdonald
    March 24, 2009 | 12:39 pm

    Another popular cooperative game is called “Apples to Apples,” I think.

    I’ve lost lots of games to my kids, but I haven’t LET them win. They still enjoy playing, and feel really proud when they win. Luckily they have opportunities to win outside the house too.

  6. […] Should you let your kids win when you play games? […]

  7. Chris
    June 10, 2009 | 12:49 am

    I have a 3 yr old and a 2 week old and have wondered about this myself. I play games and ‘race’ with my son, but as far as a foot race or a contest of skill goes, of course he doesn’t stand a chance. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily let my son win, but I perform at less than capacity, if you know what I mean. I try to push him to his limits by running just a little faster than he can or pushing the button right before he does. Sometimes he suprises me and beats me, and I think that he has fun “knowing” that he has a chance to beat dad. I once heard him say, “I’m faster than you,” after he beat me to a ball we were racing to, and I almost died laughing hearing my two year old taunt me. I don’t think I’ll let my son win, but there’s nothing wrong with making it close.

  8. […] Should you let your kids win when you play games? […]