Letting Kids Win or Playing to Win?

Father and son playing chess
Sam Edwards / Getty Images

I have a child in my extended family who is fiercely competitive.  And he is not always a good sport.  He often gloats when he wins and he tries to blame everyone else when he loses, or he changes the rules at the last minute so that he can’t lose.  While competition is good, so is a level playing field. This elicits that age-old question for fathers (at least it does for me) – do we let our child win in a competition or do we play to win, hoping they will become more competitive by watching us win?

Three Schools of Thought

The parenting experts seem to fall in three different approaches to the question of whether we should artificially let a child win. 

  • Yes – let the child win so that it builds his self-confidence
  • No – keep the playing field level because letting the child win stops when he or she competes against others
  • Sometimes – strike a balance between the occasional win and the lessons that can come from losing.

The “Yes” camp feels that there are enough pressures in the world on a child’s sense of self-worth that parents shouldn’t be creating more feelings of inadequacy.  “The more children win,” they theorize, “the better they will feel about themselves.  This will fortify them against bullies and others later in life because they will have a firm sense of self-worth.”  

I don’t fall into the “Yes” group because I think it creates a false sense of security and engenders feelings of entitlement later on when they may discover how unskilled they are at some things.  If they always win games when they play with a parent, they don’t feel motivated to work harder and sharpen their skills for the next game or competition.

The “No” camp seems to believe that we have to always be real with our children and to prepare them for the harsh realities of a “dog-eat-dog” life.  If we coddle them, they conclude, then they will be unprepared for life and may be sorely disappointed when they fail or lose in a fair, head-to-head competition.  If they are weak or inadequate, failing in competition will motivate them to become stronger, more skilled, and more resilient. ​​

But what this group seems to ignore is the discouragement factor.  If a child repeatedly loses in a competition with a parent or an older sibling, he or she may simply give up or move onto something else in which they have a better chance of success.  The child who loses 10 times out of 10 in a free throw shooting contest may be motivated for a while to get better, but when it becomes a string of 20 or 30 losses, he or she is more likely to just quit trying.

I tend to fall on the side of the “Sometimes” group of parents who try to balance the competitive experience so that children learn to lose gracefully but also occasionally have the “thrill of victory.”  When a child has both experiences and feels hope that at times he or she might come out on top, they will keep trying and stay motivated to improve.

Keeping a More Level Playing Field

The idea of allowing a child to win – “throwing the game” – is totally foreign to many fathers.  We see our job as teaching kids to confront reality and to constantly seek to grow.  This requires us to keep the playing field level and “let the best player win.”

I concur with that approach, but there are choices we can make to keep the playing field as level as possible while still providing opportunities for victories for our children.

Use different tees.  On the golf course, there are often three sets of tees at the beginning of a hole.  The championship tees are farthest back and intended for experienced golfers who have a higher level of skill.  The middle tees, or white tees, are designed for good golfers and there is another set of tees (the red tees) closer to the hole for newer golfers or possibly women who don’t have the strength to hit the ball as far.

We can use this “different tees” paradigm when playing games with our children.  We could give them a short head start in a race, or let them shoot baskets with a basket that is less than the regulation 10’ height – at least for a while.  This is a good strategy for leveling the playing field between the child’s novice skills and the higher level skills of a parent or older sibling.

Pair up with parents.  We have found a very successful approach to games without “letting the child win” is to have many games in teams.  We pair a younger child with one parent and an older child with the other parent or an older sibling.  When they play in teams, the younger child has a better chance of winning.  The key is balancing the skill levels of the teams so that everyone has a roughly equal chance of winning the game.

Model good sportsmanship.  Like my relative, if winning becomes everything, then there is a tendency to be a sore loser.  So, as a parent, when you do win, be gracious and complimentary.  When you lose, be gracious and congratulatory.  Let the children know that gloating makes others feel bad. If you model good sportsmanship in the competition, your children will learn the value of winning and losing with class and respect.

Was this page helpful?