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Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. Headshot

A Father's Day Blog: It's Not About Winning

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Everyone who plays games with children quickly learns a first lesson: How important it is for them to win. For most children (and, to be honest, for many adults), these games matter. He does not want to win; 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 insure their victory, they will cheat. Often, they are not content with winning. They also engage in some expression of gleeful triumph -- bragging or 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 to this question 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.

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. Other children 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 play by the rules and 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. he 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 any game, there will be moments of excitement, anxiety, frustration and disappointment. 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. You can talk about how it feels to win and to lose, and let him know that you have also had these feelings. Most children also seem to benefit from talking about the disappointments and frustrations endured by their heroes, baseball players, for example, who sometimes strike out. Then, we can insist on behavior that is honest, fair and not hurtful to others.

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.

I am often asked, by both parents and students, an unavoidable question: "Should I let him win?" Over time, 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 learn to accept disappointment and the limitations of their own skills gradually, through practice.

Above all, we should play frequently and enthusiastically with our 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.

Yet this idea -- that there is only winning and losing, and nothing else matters, highly questionable even in the realm of professional sports -- seems to be making a resurgence among some social critics and parent advisors. These advisors believe that our children have become too soft, that they are in danger of losing their competitive drive, even that rewarding children for their participation -- not for winning -- somehow encourages the development of narcissism. (Time magazine's recent article on the narcissism of the Millenial generation repeats this common, although dubious, accusation.)

These ideas are silly. Children want to win. It is part of their instinctive endowment. When we offer prizes to all children, for their participation and their effort, we encourage participation and effort. I have never met a child who wanted to win any less, or tried any less hard, because he knew that everyone would be getting a prize. Children don't say, "I don't have to try hard, I'm going to get a trophy anyway." They want to win.

There is much more than winning that makes competition an important socializing experience. Children should learn from competition 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.