Friday, February 5, 2010

Do you let your kids win at board games? I say let 'em lose!

“Do you always let your kids win at board games? Do you think we should let them win when they're little?” An internet friend posed this question yesterday, and I couldn’t resist taking the bait.

Why, no, I responded. Losing at board games not only teaches children about sportsmanship but also teaches them that for some things, like Candy Land, the outcome simply doesn’t matter that much; the fun is in the process of playing.

The other learning opportunity that may get overlooked in this debate is for kids to learn what a game of chance means. Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders are, as I remember, strategy-free games; the outcome depends entirely on the luck of the draw, making the odds of winning 50/50. If you let your 3-year-old win at Candy Land every time, isn’t there a risk that he’ll get a warped view of the laws of probability?

In fact, when my son Tim was still playing preschool board games, I remember being so intent on not giving him the wrong message by always letting him win that on one long rainy day when we played several rounds of Candy Land in a row, I became concerned that he was winning – albeit fairly – too often, and that I should win a few games just to exercise his good-sportsmanship muscles, so I briefly contemplated manipulating the outcome. But the thought of myself as someone who cheats at Candy Land was just too distasteful, so I went back to leaving it up to Fate.

When Tim was about five, he invited a new friend over to play T-ball. As the visiting child stepped up to bat, Tim started calling strikes. “Strike one! Strike two! Strike three! My turn to bat!”

The other mother, whom we hadn’t met before, seemed appalled. “Tim, when we play we don’t actually keep score,” she admonished him. “We just let each batter keep going until he gets a good hit.”

Tim was clearly puzzled. “But without strikes, how do you know when the inning is over?” he asked.

Although I understood the other mother’s point, I could also see what Tim meant. To him, striking out wasn’t a sign of failure; it was a sign that your turn is over and it’s someone else’s turn to try. Easy, mathematical, straightforward.

Tim went on to be a fairly serious grade school athlete, and since my husband is a baseball coach for Tim’s age group, it’s something I hear a lot of conversation about. As a coach, my husband has never mouthed the party line about “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses.” He wants the kids to play as if winning is their goal. If they get outplayed by the other team and lose, that’s fine, but he expects his players to go into the game with a “Let’s win this” mindset.

It seems to have worked, at least with our son. Last summer, most of their baseball games ran late into the evening, and although I watched when I could, the need to put my younger child to bed often resulted in my missing the last few innings, so I would get the recap when they got home. Sometimes, Tim would crow like any other child, “We won! We won!” Other times, he would say, “We beat them, but we weren’t playing our best. We were just a stronger team. But we made a lot of mistakes.” And generally those games would be followed by a lot more analysis and intense discussion between my husband and son, and sometimes the other players as well, than those in which they lost. On the other hand, when they played hard and lost by a small margin, no one ever seemed heartbroken, just determined to be sure their hard work paid off better next time.

Last spring, Tim’s fifth grade class invited parents to a reading of personal essays they’d recently written. Tim’s friend Will wrote about playing doubles tennis with his brother against their parents. The story was a cliffhanger, with the two boys giving it their all and the nervous tension building right to game point. But in the end, somewhat to my surprise, the parents won the match. Will ended his essay with a shrug and a sheepish smile as he described that final impossible serve from his dad.

On the way out, I caught up to Will’s mom. “Nice job!” I said.

She smiled. “Yes, he loves to write, and he worked hard on that essay.”

“No, I actually meant nice job on letting the boys lose the game,” I admitted. “That surprised me. I was sure they’d win.”

She laughed, but then answered seriously. “They’re about to be eleven and thirteen and they’re turning into really good players,” she said. “By next summer, they’ll probably be consistently beating us at tennis. We wanted one last win while we could get it.”

I admired her attitude because it was so honest and, ultimately, so sensible. She gave Will one last taste of honest losing, knowing that it won’t be long until he’ll have the thrill of honest winning. I’d like to think a three-year-old playing Chutes and Ladders would benefit just as much from an honest, luck-of-the-draw win or loss as Will does from facing the truth this one last season before he becomes a better tennis player than his mom.


  1. Excellent post Nancy. You make some really good points. Of course we want to let kids experience winning, but we don't always win in life and it's just as important to experience loss and know how to handle it and learn from it. Good on the parents who played an honest tennis game with the young boys!

  2. great story about the tennis parents. we actually do play board games fair and square. (as in life, you win some you lose some.) it was tough at first, but my 4 yr old daughter takes it in stride and usually challenges us to another game if she loses. (learning to persevere, perhaps? ;)