By Kenneth Barish
This Father’s Day, I would like to share some thoughts on an important aspect of children’s emotional development and a source of distress in many father-child relationships — winning and losing at games.
Everyone who plays games with children quickly learns how important it is for them to win. For most children (and, to be honest, for many adults) these games matter. The child doesn’t want to win; s/he needs to win. Winning, by whatever means, evokes in young children a feeling of pride; losing evokes a feeling of failure and shame. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these emotions in the lives of our children, especially young boys.
When playing games, many young children take great pleasure in their victory — and in our defeat. To ensure their victory, they may cheat. They may make up their own rules, changing them for their purposes and to their advantage during the course of the game. And they may not be just content with winning. They could engage in some expression of gleeful triumph: boasting, bragging, and taunting. Or, if they lose, they may throw game pieces, insist on a “do-over,” or refuse to play.
Why do young children so often need to play with us in this way? Perhaps the answer is simply that this is what young boys are like. For young boys, the feeling of winning — the need to feel a sense of physical or intellectual dominance, to display their strength and skill, to feel strong in relation to other boys and men — seems essential to their self-esteem. Young children need to believe that they can and will do great things.
Developmental psychologist Susan Harter, based on her interviews with preschool children, reports this amusing, but important finding:
“In the very young child, one typically encounters a fantasied self possessing a staggering array of abilities, virtues, and talents. Our preschool subjects, for example, gave fantastic accounts of their running and climbing capabilities, their knowledge of words and numbers, as well as their virtuosity in winning friends and influencing others… fully 50% of them describe themselves as the fastest runner in their peer group.”
Many children who play in this way, both boys and girls, are temperamentally impulsive and strong willed. It has therefore been more difficult for them to learn to control their expressions of frustration and disappointment. For other children, who feel in some way defeated (often by difficulties in learning), winning and boasting offer them temporary relief from feelings of failure and envy. Some younger children have not yet emerged from the age of illusion, the age when children are not yet expected to fully understand the idea of rules. But, to be fair, we all get caught up in the game.
What can we do? How can we help children learn to accept defeat gracefully? Many parents believe that this essential aspect of emotional maturity can be instilled through lectures and strict enforcement. My experience teaches a different lesson. The ability to accept defeat gracefully is not learned from instruction; it is learned through practice and the emulation of admired adults.
In the course of playing a game, there will always be moments of excitement, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. When you play with your children, play with enthusiasm and express some of your own excitement and disappointment. That way your child will also in some way acknowledge these feelings. These brief moments present an opportunity. You will observe how your child attempts to cope with frustration, and you can talk with him about it.
Most children also seem to benefit from talking about the disappointments and frustrations their heroes endure — baseball players, for example, who sometimes strike out. The goal of these discussions is to help a child learn that his disappointment is a disappointment, not a catastrophe, and that he will not always win or always lose.
We help children with the problem of cheating, with winning and losing, when we help them cope with the anxiety, frustration, and disappointment that are part of every game and everything we do.
Should you let your child win? I have arrived at a simple, although controversial, answer: I let young children win, but not every time. Letting a child win does not teach a lack of respect for authority or encourage a denial of reality. It is an empathic recognition that kids are kids, and being kids, they must learn to accept disappointment and the limitations of their own skills gradually through practice.
Above all, I recommend that parents play frequently and enthusiastically with their children. In these playful, competitive interactions, in innumerable small experiences of victory, followed by defeat, followed by victory, losing becomes tolerable.
It is also important for us to keep in mind that, from the point of view of child development, the philosophy of Vince Lombardi (“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”) is profoundly wrong and teaches exactly the wrong lesson.
It is much more than winning that makes competition an important socializing experience. Children should learn the importance of teamwork and cooperation, of commitment to others and respect for our opponents, and especially, learning to play by the rules. Although they may sometimes seem arbitrary to children, rules are there for a reason. We need to demonstrate these reasons to our children.
If winning is everything, children will cheat.
Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University. He is also on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and the William Alanson White Institute Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program.