Letting them win

July 2007

Dear Dave,

So Sam went in a huff when he lost three times in a row at Snakes and Ladders? Then, when you fudged the result of the next game so he won, he pulled his t-shirt over his face and ran round the house waving his arms in the air and screaming about how wonderful he was?

Yep, that sounds familiar.

Teaching kids to be good winners and losers is a nightmare. You want them to be at least a little bit competitive so they've some chance of earning some money one day and moving out. But you don't want to overdo it, however, and have them to be too arrogant to live with while you're waiting. You want them to be successful and nice. This is the combination that leads to the best nursing home for you, after all.

How to achieve it, though?

I was faced with the problem most recently while having a kick-about in the park with the boys:

Everything started out fine. We found a thirty foot stretch of grass between two benches which we used as goals - a pitch big enough to get them running around but small enough to make sure I didn't have to. I stood in my goal and kept kicking it towards theirs. They kept running after it and bringing it back. It was all good fun, even if they didn't entirely have the idea.

Playing football with them reminds me of being an exchange student in the States when I was a teenager. I have a memory of playing 'soccer' in PE class one day and watching almost everyone else on the pitch (including at least one goal-keeper) form a mob around the ball. Every so often someone in the middle of the scrum would actually manage to find the ball and kick it a few feet. The writhing mass of flailing limbs would then duly shuffle in the same direction. Eventually the ball emerged and one of my team-mates had the sense to boot it up the field to me. I strolled over to the goal and scored. The whistle blew. The mob stopped flailing and looked around in a bewildered fashion. Then we started over from the beginning.

This happened surprisingly often. There were three Europeans in that class and I'm not saying we could have taken on the rest single-handed but whichever team had two of us in was almost certain to win. One of us would go after the ball and pass it to the other one who was standing somewhere else. For some reason, this glaringly obvious passing tactic seemed to be beyond our American friends. Trying to be more than a few feet from the ball felt unnatural to them. (Every other sport we did that year, we played every day for a fortnight. After three days of soccer, however, our teacher gave up in despair. We went bowling after that. I wonder if the same thing will happen to David Beckham...)

Anyway, the boys run after the ball wherever it goes and so it's easy for me to both (a) get it off them in order to score and (b) tire them out by booting it into the distance and watching them scamper after it. At the point they listen to me and take in that they can run in different directions and pass to each other, then I'm stuffed. In the meantime, I have almost total control over the outcome of a match. I can always organise a competitive draw. Everyone has fun, no one gets big-headed because they won and no one gets annoyed because they lost. Of course, this is a cop-out because life seldom really ends in a competitive draw but, if I've got the kids out playing football, my main aim is exercise rather than life-lessons in winning and losing.

This time, however, Fraser scuppered me. "First one to three, wins!" he shouted.

There wasn't an option for a draw and the number of goals required was too low to drag the match out until it was time to go inside without a winner. Either the boys had to win, or I did. Realistically, the result was up to me.

What do you do in these situations? How often is it reasonable to let children win? How much is it possible to beat them by without totally discouraging them and making them give up?

We almost certainly got it wrong when Fraser was young. He got praise for everything. When he was learning to walk, it even got to the stage that if he managed to stand up by himself he'd look around and wait for somebody to clap. If no one did, he'd clap himself. Then he'd clap himself for clapping. These days, his friends at school can be doing cart-wheels but he wants attention if he manages to stand on one foot for five seconds without falling over. He's also reluctant to try things he thinks might be difficult because he's worried he might fail and thus not get his fix of adulation. He hates to lose.

Sarah found this article about the problem a while back: How not to talk to your kids.

It's quite long but makes a strong case for praising effort over achievement. Basically, if you praise a kid for doing well then they'll cope badly with failure. Praise a kid for trying hard and they'll continue to try hard and are more likely to try things that they know they might fail.

So it's OK to reward just turning up and trying, as long as you make it clear that's what you're doing. The thing to avoid is praising mediocre achievement in order to 'encourage self-worth'. Self-worth doesn't come from knowing we can always win - it's what keeps us going when we lose. It's what allows us to persevere and take risks. Trying something, failing and trying again is actually more valuable than succeeding spectacularly at something which comes naturally.

We've started praising the kids for trying things rather than succeeding at them. It doesn't always work - often we end up praising them for trying and succeeding. We are, however, trying to persuade them that practice is important and that being good at things takes effort. We're trying to make sure they know that we love them whatever happens and that failing doesn't make them 'failures'.

So how did the football match end? Well, old habits die hard - I praised their effort but I let them win three goals to two. If I hadn't, they'd have just insisted on making it the first to four or five or twenty-seven, anyway. I was hot and tired by then, and I just wanted to go lie down.

It's hard work being a housedad.

Yours in a woman's world,


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