Should You Let Your Kids Win?


I'm not a good soccer player, but I'm a heck of a lot better than my 5-year-old son. The same goes for most backyard games as well as board games, video games and nearly all other competitions.

I generally don't run up the score, but I don't lie down either. That's not to say Bubba doesn't eke out a close one on occasion. But I'm not the type of parent who routinely let's his kid win games.

I wondered last week if this was healthy. I know plenty of parents that consistently let their children beat them in competition. Perhaps Bubba's self-esteem is taking a hit every time I kick his butt in Mario Cart or score a double hat trick playing hockey on the driveway.

I called Prof. Gillian McNamee at the Erikson Institute in downtown Chicago last week looking for advice. She's an expert in preschool curriculum at the graduate school that specializes in childhood development.

McNamee said self-esteem is not determined by wins and losses. Whether it's Chutes and Ladders or Little League baseball, a child's winning percentage has little to do with his or her feeling of self-worth.

Children have different appetites for winning and losing, too. The goal of every parent should be to stay in tune with his or her child's needs. Sometimes a kid needs a win. But certainly not every time, she said.

"I think the let-kids-win-always approach is definitely not healthy," McNamee said, adding children usually know when their parents are letting them win.

If a child is struggling with a particular game, parents should feel free to adjust the rules. Whether it's pulling an extra card in Candyland or getting four strikes during backyard batting practice, tweaking the rules to improve a child's chance at success is perfectly acceptable, McNamee said.

Such exceptions to the rules also can be used to teach a valuable life lesson. Indeed, the rules are different for certain people and in certain situations. For example, cars and trucks have different speed limits in Illinois. And senior citizens pay less for coffee at Burger King than everyone else, she said.

"In our family, we were always adjusting the rules," McNamee said. As far as winning and losing, some sports programs have gone so far as to eliminate the scoreboards to protect kids from being labeled a "loser." Other parents take it a step further and forbid any sort of competition.

But, kids need to learn how to lose. McNamee said keeping score at a t-ball game played by five-year-old children is unnecessary. But by the time kids are between the ages of six or seven, the score is important. It serves as another opportunity for a life lesson, McNamee said. "None of us can duck the scores, whether it's the ACT or our cholesterol," she said. As for my tendency toward beating Bubba in most games, I'm just not wired to let him win very often. Eventually, the tables will turn. Someday soon he'll be the one beating up his dad while throwing beanbags in the backyard and showing me up in front of my grandchildren at the mini golf course.

I hope my self-esteem can handle it. Maybe Bubba will even be nice enough to let me eke out a close one.

Howard Ludwig is a former business writer who traded in his reporter's notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad. He wrote for The Father Life. 

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