I just spent part of tonight beating my 7-year-old daughter at Chutes and Ladders. OK, it was only one game, but it was hard fought and I pulled it out at the end. It might sound like I enjoyed it, but c’mon, it’s Chutes and Ladders: no adult ever really enjoys that game.
But I did care who won and who lost.
In fact, whenever my wife and I play board games, sports, card games or hopscotch with our kids, we don’t let them win. We never have. Yes, I know, we are terrible parents, right?
Listen, we don’t pull out every trick in the book or use grand master strategy to destroy them. I don’t get up and do a happy dance or throw it back in their face when they lose. However, sometimes they do win and it is fun for everyone. The thing is games aren’t always just about fun, sometimes they can teach us about life.
What kind of horribly competitive parents would do this? We are the kind of parents who love our kids and who actually want them to learn something about winning AND losing as they grow up. Somewhere along the line, our culture came to the conclusion that our kids must win at everything. Every participant gets a trophy and we don’t use red marks on school papers. Well, sorry, kids — that doesn’t fly in our house and we will never “let” you beat us.
In his incredibly insightful book Oh the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss has a few lines that have rooted themselves in my parental thought process. The good doctor says:
“Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.”
As parents, we forget this. We shield our kids from the disappointments and losing in life. Sometimes it’s because we love them so much we never want them to experience defeat. Sometimes it’s because our own identity is tied up in them winning and it’s our own ego that gets in the way. No matter what it is, it’s not helping our children.
I remember playing Little League baseball and seeing a few of my teammates getting trophies at the end of the season. I wanted one so bad that it drove me to be better. I practiced harder so that one day, I might get that trophy. If everyone got one would it have cheapened it? Absolutely. I want my kids to know the hunger that drives you to be the best and the exhilaration of accomplishing that. I also want them to know what it feels like to be humbled because someone is better than you. Because there is always someone better. It’s just a matter of time before you meet them.
It’s not that we don’t want them to win. It’s that losing “well” is just as important as winning “well.” My kids hate to lose. Honestly, there are times when they’ve cried after losing a game. These moments of emotional distress turn into teachable moments to talk to them about how you can’t and won’t always come out on top, and that’s OK. Losing sucks, there’s no way around it. However, losing can show us how we can improve and how to maturely let someone else have the limelight. I love teaching my kids strategy about the game as we are playing it. When they get beat because of it, they see firsthand how to get better. If I let them win, I would deprive them of all these things. I also want our kids to know that they don’t always have to win to make us proud and they don’t have to win to get our love. They have that no matter what.
We are proud of them when they are in the front holding the 1st place ribbon, and we are proud of them when they play the best they can and still lose. In fact, I will hate when they are old enough to be on a team where everyone gets a trophy. Not only is it something else to clutter our house with, but it also hinders the drive to get better.
I hope all three of my kids find where their talents are and beat the snot out of the competition. I will be there to cheer them on when they win. I will also be there to hold them when they lose. I hope they will do each with grace and maturity.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to beating my son at Star Wars Chess.
A version of this first appeared on Lunchbox Dad.