When swimming like Scrooge McDuck through the tears of a child you just out-bowled by 100 points, you might ask yourself, “Should I have let them win?” After all, children are mentally developing, physically uncoordinated, and worse than adults at pretty much everything. Meanwhile, their fragile psyche is a garden of lifelong insecurities just waiting to be fertilized with your obnoxious victory dances.
Pretty much every father has asked himself this question at some point, so we put it to clinical psychologist “Dr. Joe” Taravella, Supervisor of Pediatric Psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation. Dr. Joe’s expertise is “identifying and treating neurological, behavioral, and environmental problems that cause breakdown in a family” so, presumably, this is a softball for him.
The short answer? “Sometimes.” Here’s the longer answer.
Groom Sportsmanship by Phase
“In the toddler years, kids aren’t really focused on winning or losing,” says Dr. Joe. “It’s more about taking turns and sharing.” At this stage, your kid doesn’t view other kids as competitors, just potential things to bite or not bite. They should learn to play well with others before learning to play against others.
Competitiveness really picks up around preschool, when Candy Land turns to checkers and some measure of skill becomes a factor. Simply playing with others is commendable for toddlers, but preschoolers and kindergarteners should learn to play by the rules.
It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How
Once kids have learned the rules and felt the golden rush of victory, it’s time to put things in perspective. Unless you’re trying to raise the next Tiger Woods, games are but a tiny aspect of life, so the most important part is winning or losing with tact. “It is about accepting the losing gracefully, and leading by example,” he says.
Your kid should beat you sometimes, so they can witness Dad lose while still genuinely enjoying the game. You should beat your kid sometimes so they can see what a “good game” handshake looks like when it’s not followed by the robot dance.
So, You Should Let Them Win Sometimes?
Unless you’re raising some kind of prodigy, your kids will have way more opportunities to see you as a good winner than as a good loser, so you’re going to have to … adjust things. Golfers call this a handicap; runners call it a head start — you can call it whatever you want, so long as you explain that your disadvantage is only fair due to your age and size. Pit yourself against multiple kids to even the odds, or think of creative ways to screw yourself over a little from the get-go, and your kids won’t have to suffer the indignity of watching you let them score.
Another way to accomplish this is to switch from games that involve physical and mental prowess and play games of luck instead. Don’t worry about them being too boring — there’s nothing boring for your kid about beating you at something.
How to Handle a Sore Loser
If Junior boils with rage at the sting of losing, “try to put their emotions into words without any kind of judgment,” Dr. Joe advises. “Just say, ‘Not winning seems to make you frustrated.’” If you can utter those words without a patronizing tone, you can engage your kid in a conversation rather than an emotional meltdown (you’re also really good at not being patronizing).
Remind them that games are meant to be fun, and mention a positive aspect of their performance. Instead of telling them how not to act when losing — “nobody likes a sore loser” — focus on being an example of how a winner should behave.
How to Handle a Kid Who Struggles
Press the point that everyone is good at something, even if it’s not this activity. “Normalize it for them to see that each one of us is unique and different and special, and we bring our own talents,” he says. The best way to illustrate this point is from your personal reserve of failures in life. If you don’t have a personal reserve of failures, shut up.
How to Handle an Ego
Just like you need to occasionally throw the game to teach a larger life lesson, there are instances when you might need to run the score up a little for a lesson in humility.
“It does feel good to win, but we also want to have an awareness or an understanding of how it feels for the other person to be losing as well,” Dr. Joe says. Kids need to think about how their behavior feels for their opponent, and one way to do that is to occasionally spike the ball hard enough to make them feel it.
Win, lose, and draw — your kid needs to experience all of these. “Losing builds character,” Dr. Joe says. “It builds a thicker skin for us.” Winning gives kids confidence and fond memories. And a draw is … what you declare when none of the above works.