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Teaching a Child to Lose Gracefully - Winning

By Sarah Liebetrau - 18th April 2011

Recently I took my five-year-old son to play his second-ever game of ten pin bowling. At one point in the game, I got two strikes in a row. This displeased my son greatly, so he downed tools and went on strike. “I’m not playing any more!” he declared. “You’ve had two strikes and I’ve had none! It’s not fair. I’m only five, and you’re a grown-up. You’re supposed to take it easy.”

He had one thing right – obviously I’ve had many more years practice at it than him, so if we were both playing to the best of our ability, I was bound to win (one would assume – although I’m really not usually that good at bowling). I had gone easy on him for the first little while, but I found that deliberately rolling my ball straight into the gutter wasn’t very enjoyable for me, and I wondered what I was teaching him by allowing him to win. He would have picked up on the fact that I wasn’t playing my ‘A-game’, and by telling me I was supposed to take it easy, he had already decided that this was the way it was meant to be – adults were supposed to let kids win. But what kind of satisfaction would he then get from winning, knowing that it wasn’t based on his skill or, indeed, effort? How would he ever know the elation of trying his hardest, and then possibly winning against an older, more experienced opponent? And what happened to just trying your best and having fun?

On the other hand, is it really fair to thrash a five-year-old at bowling just because you can? I think when parents became ultra-competitive, kids pick up on this. It’s unfair to step up the pressure just to keep a child from winning,  but deliberately sabotaging my every chance of a decent shot was going too far in the opposite direction.

I explained to him that yes, I had been going easy on him, but it wasn’t any fun for me, and by watching me play the best I could, he could try to learn how to play himself. The added bonus was that if he did win, he would know he had beat me fair and square. “But I might not get a strike!” he protested. “Yes,” I agreed, “but that’s ok. What will happen if you don’t get a strike?”

“I won’t win!” he exclaimed. “You might still win,” I pointed out, “and even if you don’t, what will happen then? Aren’t you having fun just playing?” He agreed that he was. "And when you play against other kids, you’ll know just what to do to try your hardest,” I pointed out. “If I let you win, you might not try very hard because you’ll know I’m letting you win anyway, and you might not have as much fun. It’s nice to win, but it’s also fun just to try your best.” I paused to try and gauge whether any of that was sinking in. He harrumphed a bit longer while I continued with my turn. After a few minutes lost in thought, he seemed to snap out of it and continued playing. In the end, he won the first game and I won the second. Although I had been concerned about my lack of consistency by changing my approach halfway through, he seemed to appreciate that I had been honest with him about why I had changed tack and could deal with the outcome.

I was pretty impressed with the quick recovery, and realised that perhaps kids are more prepared to learn the hard life lessons than we, as well-intentioned parents, often give them credit for when we try to shield them from disappointment.

Do you ever let your kids win? How do you teach them to lose gracefully?

image freedigitalphotos.net Salvatore Vuono

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