Q Is it good for children to win at games all of the time? My husband lets our 10-year-old son Neil (an only child) win every game they play together. I wonder if all parents let their kids win all of the time or not. Does never losing affect whether a child learns good sportsmanship? I’d like Neil to accept losing as well as winning, in a gracious way.
A You asked if all parents let their children win at games. Parents tend to fall into one of three groups: parents who let their child win all of the time; parents who believe a win must be earned; and parents who tend to not let their child win, unless they notice the child becoming discouraged from losing so often.
You wondered what effect winning all of the time might have on your son. Of course kids don’t all respond in the same way. Some could not care less if they win while others will be more competitive and focused on winning. Parents can raise or lower the level of competitiveness by what they say before a game. For example, you might set the tone by saying, “Maybe this will be the day you win big” or “win or lose, let’s just have fun playing.”
Then there is the question of the impact on the child when they constantly win because the parent lets them win. We can’t predict what kids will think, but it is possible that a child may start to think, “I’m smarter than Dad,” or “I’m very very good at games and that’s why people don’t win when they play with me. I’m better than they are.” Another possible reaction might be, “I’m already so good, I don’t have to work at improving.”
Now what happens when Neil, or any child who is accustomed to winning all of the time, gets a play date with another child? Imagine the other child wins at a game they’re playing together. Neil may think: “Well, how did that happen when he is not as good as I am? He must have cheated.” At this point, we see that good sportsmanship behavior has not been taught or learned.
In my opinion, it’s important as a child to learn that you or your team won’t always win. At times, children will face competitors who have practiced longer, are stronger or end up with time or luck on their side.
Parents are the role models for sports-manlike behavior for their children. This includes both you and your husband. If the three of you play a game together, either you, your husband or both of you will lose some of the time. Be ready with an acceptable sportsmanlike expression such as “congratulations on winning” or “congrats on a well-played game!” Whether Neil wins or loses, you can brag on something he did well that you want to encourage, such as concentrating well, strategizing or making a great move.
One of the best moms I know shared that she and her husband started playing board games with their two kids at an early age. She said, “We never automatically let the kids win. If they won, then that was excellent. We would always end by saying ‘good game’ no matter who won. If they didn’t win, we said, ‘Maybe next time.’”
In addition to modeling good sports-manlike behavior at home, you can also model it at Neil’s activities outside of the home. Find coaches for him that model the behavior you want Neil to exhibit. Stress the importance of working hard to get better if you want to excel and win.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.