I Don’t Care If You’re 4, I’m Not Letting You Win

Over Christmas, my good friend bought my son KerPlunk — and she was as excited as he was to play it. My friend is competitive, but I didn’t realize just how much until she took his arm at one point and said, “Finn, if you touch a stick, then you have to take it out. No cheating to test how it feels! We all know that is a cheater’s way of feeling out how many marbles might drop!”

She beat him at the match, and then looked at me waiting for my disapproving frown to appear.

It didn’t.

My son good-naturedly took the loss and asked for a re-match, more determined than ever to win. Because in our house, we don’t just let the kids win at games to keep them happy. We don’t let the fact that they’re kids affect who wins or not — we play the game by the rules and show them the skill of doing so. If they lose, we teach them to do so with good grace. Which, with a 4-year-old, can be challenging.

While some folks may think this is cruel, we think we are being kind. Losing graciously is an important skill to learn; it shows strength of character to accept defeat and to get up and have another go. What will they learn if they win every time?

A few years ago, we visited friends and they had a ping pong table in their garden. The whole time we were there, my son tried to beat me. He came close, narrowly losing by a single point on several occasions. One afternoon, he threw down his paddle and sobbed at his loss. Immediately I stepped away and said I wouldn’t play again until he calmed down and behaved better. Later, he approached me and apologized.

A couple of months later when we were playing again, he totally wiped the floor with me — and he had earned it. He had practiced and thought about his shots, and he was thrilled to have defeated me in the end. If I had let him win from the beginning, would the success have tasted so sweet? I doubt it. Life isn’t easy — you have to work hard, apply yourself, and try over and over again often to get where you want to be. Losing at a game may seem small fry, but it helps kids understand that life doesn’t always go their way.

Plus, teaching them to lose graciously at home will make it easier when they’re older and have to stand up in front of the whole school, having come second or third or last in the science fair or a race. Losing also creates motivation to win. After all, isn’t there an excitement and joy in competition that isn’t there when we can easily win against our opponent? If my child loses at a board game, it also allows him the chance to ask, “How could I have played it better? What can I learn from this?” Like any athlete, they can analyze where they went wrong and perhaps build a better strategy.

My husband, a competitive Australian, is all about winning, but to me, learning to be a member of a team is more important. I don’t remember all of the soccer games my son has won, but I do remember vividly the day they lost and his buddy sobbed as he left the muddy field. My son waited for his friend and consoled him, putting his arm around him and promising they would win next time. That moment, when his sweet empathetic nature shone through, gives me more pride than any time he has held aloft a trophy.

According to psychologists, it is up to us to show our kids how to lose — by doing so with grace when we ourselves come last in Life or Operation. It isn’t something that can be learnt from instruction, but rather from emulation. So instead of blaming others on your kid’s soccer team when they lose, we should commend the team’s commitment and recognize the great moments of the game.

The key is trying to make our kids see that sports and board games are all meant to be fun, and if losing them becomes such a big deal, then what’s the point? — Suzanne Jannese

(Photo: Corbis Images)

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