Should you let your kids win at games?
Now, there’s a question.
And a question, which until recently, I hugely struggled with.
In the toddler years, child psychologist experts agree that it’s more about learning to play with others rather than against them. But what happens when preschoolers and above start playing to win?
Personally, I grew up in a highly competitive household.
Dad once winded me with a football, as I imagined (at the mighty age of 7) that I was playing in goal as the first ever female England goalee.
My elder sister, God love her, played picking up pairs with me for HOURS when I was four (a feat in itself), but, as I recall it, still used her almost photographic memory to full winning effect.
My Nan, a pillar of Christian society if ever you met one, became quite out of sorts when I once trounced her at Beat Your Neighbour.
‘Nan went a bit funny when we played cards’ I later told Mum in the car (I was only 9!).
Did you beat her’ she said.
‘Yes’, I replied.
My mother however, was about as competitive as a wet piece of mackerel (I loved my Mum dearly, but a natural competitor she was not!).
Playing a game with Mum had about as much edge to it as a rolling pin – she really couldn’t have cared less.
Now, all of these responses may have been adult reactions to how winning and losing and sibling rivalry was experienced as children. Or it may have had nothing to do with it. Who knows.
But it did get me thinking about how to approach playing games with my little lady.
I didn’t want to patronise her and always let her win. I mean, that’s kind of setting her up for a bit of a fall at some point.
But neither did I want to thrash her into oblivion every time we played Guess Who.
And then, of course – I found myself massively overthinking the whole thing and ended up in a bit of a should I let my kid win at board games paralysis.
Which was further confused by the fact my daughter seemed to be developing a Victoria Pendleton competitive streak all of her own.
In fact, when i won at Guess Who recently, (proudly proclaiming that her secret character was ‘Lucky’) she slammed all her remaining doors shut, stood up, clenched her fists like The Incredible Hulk, bared her gritted teeth at me and growled.
Yes, I did say growled.
It was at this point I realised I needed a gaming ‘strategy’.
And I found it by accident to be honest, in Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J Cohen.
As Cohen puts it,
‘We prepare children best, by nurturing and challenging them.’
He uses the metaphor of bricks and mortar to elaborate.
Children gain an inner strength, he says, (the mortar) from being loved and nurtured and a different kind of confidence (the bricks) from being challenged and playing their hardest.
So what does this have to do with whether or not you should let you child win at games?
Well, as a society I think we tend to go one of two ways when we play games with our kids.
We either let our child win all the time, protecting and cushioning them from every blow (which is not real life and will likely fail to give them the confidence to ever challenge themselves) or we never let our children win – either because we are so competitive ourselves that we need to win or because we feel we need to prepare our kids for the real world – i.e. a dog eat dog one, where you need to get used to the hardships now, so you can survive later.
And neither are really messages that I want to give my child.
It feels like they are both lessons being taught through fear, not love – however well meant.
So, when I read Playful Parenting, it all suddenly fell into place for me.
It was a kind of gaming Eureka moment if you like.
Playing games with kids should be enjoyable (not a permanent state of ‘should I be winning or losing’ paralysis!) but, when they are young, they are also not really about ‘us’. They are about our kids.
Sometimes, if your child is in need of a bit of a confidence boost, letting them win, can give them that much needed boost.
Thrashing them, when they are already feeling a bit down on themselves may lead to a grumpy child who feels humiliated on top of already feeling shaky and a bit crap.
On the other hand, if your child is super cocky at winning all the time, he or she may need you to give them a bit more of a challenging game.
As Cohen puts it:
By beating mum or dad, children:
‘get a refill of their attachment needs, and then they can go out and manage the more-or-less level playing field with peers.’
In general, Cohen says, we should start out letting our kids win at games and then slowly up the game a bit – slowly playing harder and harder.
Your child may have a setback at school, or with some peers, and need to win a bit more again for a while, so things can go back and forth for a time, but that’s fine.
As Cohen says, the best thing to do is let your child be the lead.
If they start saying ‘this is boring’ – this is almost certainly a cue that they need more of a challenge.
If they bemoan that ‘you always win’ – they may need a bit of a confidence boost for a while and be allowed to win a few games before you up the ante again.
For me, what’s great about this approach and why it made such sense to me, is because it makes games child centred. You play according to your child’s needs.
If a 5 year old child who has just started school says ‘Remember, I’m only just 5’ – this is her message to you that she is feeling a bit (or a lot) less superior. She likely needs you not to play your hardest.
Games can (and should) be enjoyable for both adult and child, but they are also be an invaluable tool (if you want them to be) to build confidence and fair play in your child, as well as teaching them to try their hardest.
At the end of the day, these are assets that will be invaluable to them in life far beyond the board game or pillow fight.
I saw a wonderful Dad in the park the other day. His little girl wanted to go on the climbing frame, but she was scared. Rather than tell her not to be silly or go on something else, he got on with her and supported her as far as she was willing to go. He acknowledged her feelings and shaky confidence and supported her in this, with absolutely no judgement.
At the end of the day, we are here to nurture and support our children and help them be the best they can be – not knock them when they are already feeling down.
So what about my little lady’s Hulk impression following her Guess Who loss?
Again, Cohen addresses this and says we may also need to spend time on our child’s feelings about competition.
Kids signal this by being sore losers or obnoxious about winning he says.
So how do we do this?
According to Cohen, we need to switch from playing the game to playing with themes:
What To Do When Your Child Needs Help With Feelings About Competition
If your child is like a bear with a sore head (or The Incredible Hulk) when he or she loses or reaches such an excruciating level of triumph at winning, you find yourself wanting to burn your Peppa Pig Snakes and Ladders game, try being playful about the whole thing.
If you can be silly and make your kids laugh, it helps release some of the pent up (and intense!) feelings about winning or losing.
Play a simple game. Anything really – football , a pillow fight, a wrestling game – or make something up.
Start to let your child win, whilst you play act a really silly figure or start to act like a real cry baby loser.
Don’t worry, your child won’t pick up or copy this silly behaviour in real life – you are simply giving them the opportunity to release some of the intense tension that builds up for kids over winning or losing, without shaming them or broaching it ‘directly’.
With my little lady, we played wrestling on the bed and I bragged that my feet had super powers and could push her feet away into infinity and beyond.
Of course, when we placed each others soles together and pushed, I pretended to strain really hard, them let her win, crashing over backwards, whilst looking all surprised and bewildered.
She loved it.
In fact, by the end we got so silly, we’d moved onto pitting bottoms and ears and all manner of other body parts with super powers against one another. And every time, I let her win, as I got more and more ridiculous playing acting the sore loser.
Perhaps I should say at this point – until I actually got down and tried some of the suggestions in Playful Parenting (and other Mindful Parenting books), I often doubted they would work.
Or worse, doubted my ability to be silly (without 2 bottles of wine, anyway).
So if you’re thinking ‘I’m not bloody well falling over like an idiot in the park, so my kid can thrash me at football’ – get over yourself and try it!
If you child is struggling with life or death feelings around competition, they will likely thank you for it. And, who knows, you might even enjoy it 😉
Your child knows this sort of game is not real life – but it gives them a chance to work through some difficult, confusing and intense feelings, without losing face.
And if I can do that for my child – to hell with the winning.
And that’s from someone who once threw a Trivial Pursuit board across the room (as an adult) mid game…
And ‘ahem’ happy losing…
Lawrence Cohen is a professional child psychologist who advocates joining children in their world of play, focusing on connection and confidence, giggling and roughhousing, and following your child’s lead.
He writes in such a loving, inspirational way, with real life examples and anecdotes, it’s hard not to be won over by his ideas.
Now, should you let your child win at games?
Over to you…;