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Daditude: The Agony of Defeat

Why kids may have to lose sometimes to learn what it means to win

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The last time you played hoops with your kid, did you miss your shot on purpose? How about letting him win the board game? It may be time to rethink that strategy and enjoy a parental victory now and again.
The Agony of Defeat

You’re playing Monopoly with your child, or maybe it’s one-on-one basketball—anything competitive, really. At some point in the game, your child’s seemingly innate drive to win kicks in. The only thing on your mind is that beating him would be a disaster. And you, dear parent, are then faced with a choice: Do you intentionally let him win and give him bragging rights until the next match, or do you let the game unfold naturally—which, let’s face it, means you’re going to win easily—and deal with your child’s subsequent disappointment and frustration?

On the surface, that call is easy, especially if your kid is three, or four, or five, and she’s old enough to play—and care who wins—but is not skilled enough to actually beat you.

It gets trickier later on. There’s more than just momentary emotion at stake—there are life lessons to be taught, so your decision has ramifications.

Letting your child win time after time instills in her a false sense of superiority. It can reduce her drive to work harder. It is exactly what experts advise avoiding, lest our children assume they really are the greatest artist or athlete the world has ever seen and stop trying to improve their performance.

Send a child who’s never experienced defeat into the world and he will be crushed by his inevitable failure to live up to the amazing string of victories he recorded at home. Sorry, kid, you’re not really  the next LeBron James…except in your own backyard.

See Also: 5 Ways to Help Your Child Weather a Setback

Put like that, you may want to reconsider throwing whatever game you happen to be playing. She’ll get over the tears and still love you just as much— even if she is sore about losing. Learning how to lose without the loss crushing the spirit, and how to use disappointment as motivation, is essential for instilling in your child grit and resilience, traits that researchers have increasingly focused on as essential to lifelong success. We all could stand a little friendly competition to help us to find within ourselves strength and ability we didn’t know we had. But decisions in real life aren’t as easy as decisions in theory.                      

Perhaps there’s a better way. Play without keeping score—fun for fun’s sake, no winners, no losers. Or turn his competitive spirit inward by putting the focus on improving his abilities or his strategic thinking. That may be all you need to initiate his quest for self-improvement rather than drive to beat the pants off you and brag about his superiority all afternoon.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t throw the occasional game her way. You know your child and you know the situation. There is a time for life lessons and a time for living in the moment. Life is not an absolute choice between one or the other. As long as you strike the right note most of the time, over the course of the days and years, she’ll be OK. Just make sure you are, overall, instilling in her an ability to weather defeat—to lose without lashing out at her opponent and to use loss as motivation to do better next time.

Whatever you decide, just remember: your child will grow up, improve, and hopefully still enjoy competing against you at sports, board games, or whatever else you love to do together. But one day, he may be the one deciding whether to take pity and throw a game or two your way so you’re not feeling quite so bad about not being able to keep pace with the talented, driven child who’s not a kid anymore.