Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is it healthy to let kids win at games?

I was playing chess with my teenager this week and it got me thinking about the many years we have spent playing games – chess, checkers, card games, Monopoly, Risk and dozens of others. When he was younger, I would often let him win and it got me thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of letting kids win at games.

Some experts claim that letting kids win at games gives them a false sense of confidence and undermines the natural process of dealing with failure. That letting kids win is essentially stealing a learning opportunity that would otherwise motivate them to strive to get better. “Throwing the game in the kid's favor is not a healthy way for him to learn about relating and playing well with others…” says Alyssa Giacobbe in her post Why I Never Let my Four Year Old Win at Games.

Others believe that letting younger kids win helps balance the intellectual inequality that clearly exists between parent and child. In games of skill and intellect, an adult win is hollow and only teaches kids that they can never win. In her post, Should You Let Kids Win at Games?, author Sarah Caron quotes Susan T. Howson, a professor of early childhood education at Ryerson University in Toronto. "Younger children often have a harder time losing a game and (associate) losing a game with not being good at anything. As self-esteem and self-confidence are developing, losing might be a hard thing to swallow." says Howson.

Whether or not letting kids win is a good thing depends on the awareness a parent brings to the decision. In her post Letting a Child Win, How Bad?, Sabrina Weill at quotes some great points from Robert Schachter, a New York City-based psychologist and faculty member of Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

  • Be a teacher, not a staunch competitor. "It's just like how, until a certain age, you make decisions for your child. Then, as they start to be able to make decisions for themselves, you still tell them your decisions but you carefully explain to them your rationale so that they start to learn how to make decisions for themselves."
  • Up your game as the child improves. "When he can fight harder, you can play harder. You don't need to let them win every single time if they have equal abilities. You need to help a child learn the skills to fend for themselves. I think the more success a child can feel the better, but you do need to teach them the skills of competing so you should push against them as hard as they can push back."
  • Remind yourself why you're playing the game. If your child has become an equal rival at a game, it's one thing to play hard against him or her. But if you're clearly far stronger at a game, Schachter asks, "What's the point of winning when you're playing a child? If the adult is always winning, it just makes the kid feel like he can't win."
I can actually see both sides of this argument and the right answer really depends on each circumstance and each child. But there is one aspect of the debate that I have experienced, but have not seen discussed much. It’s the idea of compassion and empathy. I would let my son win for very simple reasons. I wanted him to feel good and to see him happy. And it made me feel good that I could give that to him, however sneaky and subtle. So we both ended up feeling good. I probably stole some learning opportunities from him that I will regret later but sometimes its hard to choose in favor of long-term learning when instant joy is right at your fingertips.

Now that my son is a teenager, I am starting to see him show that same compassion and empathy to others when it comes to games. Chutes and Ladders and Memory have given way to NASCAR video games and I sometimes watch and play. I really do not like playing video games at all but I do it anyway to stay connected to his teen world and share in the things that he enjoys. Just because I don’t like them, doesn’t mean I can’t support him. Something surprising happens when we play. He wants me to win. He wants me to enjoy myself.

He’ll drive his car backwards or go the wrong way on the track on purpose just so I can win. He’ll choose a faster car for me and a slower one for himself. If I get in a jam (bridges and hairpin turns tend to send my car off the nearest cliff), he’ll take my controller and guide me to an easier part of the track. When we play Guitar Hero, I get to play on “easy” and he plays on “expert” so I can win. He clearly isn’t playing to win. He’s playing to play. And not only is he playing for his own enjoyment, he’s taking an active role in making sure I enjoy myself, too.

That’s profound.

It tells me he’s playing from his heart, not his head. It tells me that somewhere inside, he gets the idea that giving so everyone can win is far more enjoyable than being the best. Or perhaps he’s reached a level of confidence in the game where he has nothing to prove, his ego is safe, and he can just let go and have fun. Whatever the reason, it makes me proud and absolves all the guilt I’ve ever felt about letting him win when he was younger.

Do you let your kids win at games? Why or why not? Join the discussion in my reader community here!


The Barking Unicorn said...

It all boils down to whether it's OK to lie to your children, doesn't it?

As the Zen Cueist, I started teaching BS ("Beloved Son") billiards when he was 4. Beat him mercilessly until he beat me, at age 7. Then we hustled 20-somethings together, old man/little kid. Now he's 18 and wins tournaments all on his own, against much older players.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on self confidence.It should be very much helpfull

Karim -
Positive thinking

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