We spent a fair bit of our time on vacation last week playing two games with the boys: UNO and Spot It. Our son F is wholly competitive; he likes to know all the answers and he likes to win. He really likes to play and giggles when things go his way or when throwing a SKIP or DRAW 4. But he is also beginning to show how much he hates to lose. It turns out he’s rarely wrong about things, so not having things go his way isn’t really a part of his evolving schema. Thing is, he is also really polite. So when his behavior disappoints us, he takes things seriously.
After losing at both UNO and Spot It Thursday afternoon he began collapsing in the chair, throwing his excess remaining (losing) cards onto the table (or the floor) in frustration. After a second dramatic display, I’d had it. I told him he must sit out a game the next time we all got to play. I used the rationale, “Your friends won’t want to play games with you if you can’t celebrate when they win.” And, “Everyone playing the game is aiming for the same goal, we all want to win. Sometimes it just won’t be in the ‘cards’ for you.”
The next game he got to play was UNO and his grandmother won. He said, “Congratulations, Grandma. Well done.” He held onto his cards. He smiled. It was verbatim to how I’d instructed him. And I must admit, something about it didn’t seem quite right.
About 2 hours later the husband read a passage out loud to me from The New Yorker about Peter Thiel and his desire to win, stemming back to his math prowess as a child and his inclination for chess.
He became a math prodigy and a national ranked chess player. His chess kit was decorated with a sticker carrying the motto “born to win.” On the rare occasions when he lost in college, he swept the pieces off the board; he would say, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
And there you are. A parenting perplexity. The question really is, do you want to create an obstinate-genius-winner or a good loser? I must admit, part of me really doesn’t know. But I’m certain there is something in between…
Good work, mama! I’m tucking this one away for when B does the same thing in a year or two. 🙂
Growing up, I was pushed to excel in whatever I was doing. This was naturally easy for me academically, succeeding was fun and my only competition was myself. But I’m also not a competitive person at all. Like I’d rather we just not keep score if it meant we could still play the game and have fun. I think this frustrated my (semi-competitive) parents who at least wanted me to TRY to compete.
I think most people will fall somewhere in the middle, we’re not going to be chess proteges but most of us won’t be constant losers either. In school, we were all taught to shake hands and say “good game” after a competitive event, win or lose. Learning sportsmanship is vitally important (I think) in relating to others and showing them respect. I hope this isn’t something that’s lost as times change, I know it’ll be important in our house as the boys grow up.
Boy, this hits home. My boys love to compete and waver in their ability to support the other. I’m okay with that. I want them to go for what they want, but also to be able to step aside and let the other shine. I don’t think teaching kids about being gracious when they lose a game denies their ability to grow competitively. Being able to be a good loser is part of learning to work collaboratively with one’s peers. Being able to give up something for another is also an important skill. Having that ability while maintaining intrinsic motivation is a fabulous balance in my opinion, and one that is tough for us even as adults. Most of us agree that social competencies, not just individual motivation are important to our children’s success.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Heather, since you submitted the comment, I keep thinking about:
“Being able to give up something for another is also an important skill.”
I totally agree. The ability to give and more importantly give up something is an incredibly important thing. And I just don’t know how much I had thought about it before. Some of us are really good at it, some of us not. Last week while we were in Costa Rica visiting my family, I had the boys give some of their toys to some children we met. Not toys we brought as gifts, but their toys. And watching it happen and watching them relinquish their treasures….incredible. This skill is entirely simple when it comes to our kids. But when it comes to others–it’s much harder for us to sacrifice.
Thanks for pointing this out to me!
I think this is a complex question. Seems to me that, in one sense, we’ll all be \losers\ at some point. No matter how skilled or competitive or blessed we are, some day we won’t get the blue ribbon, or the job, or the relationship. Life just isn’t like that. So, it seems important to me to help my child learn how to be at peace with those inevitable moments when things don’t go her way. At the same time, I’m in my forties, and I still haven’t completely learned how to do this myself (though I like to think that I’d be OK at losing at UNO). So, it seems to me that the \something in between\ is helping our children learn how to have their authentic experience when they lose (sadness, frustration, whatever), to recognize that losing and winning will both be a part of their lives, and, whichever it is, to still behave in ways that are gracious and respectful.
Of course, on the other hand, I didn’t found PayPal!
We always have taken the life isn’t always going to be fair so why should we teach our kids that winning isn’t the only thing that matters. I actually am not a fan of sports programs where they don’t keep score and everyone wins. Maybe for very young toddlers it’s ok but by preschool and definitely Elementary school I think it’s time to learn that you don’t always win and how to be a gracious loser. There was recently a parenthood episode on this very problem that was very interesting to watch.
I wonder how happy Peter is/was. How proud of his accomplishments is he? There is a section in the book Unconditional Parenting that looks at how we talk to our kids about sports/competition. It asks us to look at our goals for our kids from sports. We often think to tell them “all that matters is you did your best!” But do I really care if he did his best or did I want him to have fun playing. If so, I should probably say “you lost but was it fun?” – it strikes me that winners aren’t always happy. There is a saying that a man who carries his own lateen need never fear the darkness. My dream is to raise kids who have enough of a healthy understanding of their weaknesses and strengths that they won’t fear losing. To have kids realize that happiness is a choice – it is not bound up in winning or achievement or a given situation. And I hope they know I would always prefer they were happy with themselves rather than win. The world needs more happy street cleaners than it needs another grumpy doctor.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
I agree with you. And I expected this comment. Clearly happiness is not defined (or elevated) by acheivement. Many of us learn that the hard way.
At the end of soccer I always ask F if he had fun. I love when they scrimmage, not becuase I want him to equate fun with goal-getting, but because I know how much he loves and finds delight in the process of play and the back-and-forth and feeling a part of a team for real. Very intentionally, I am working to focus on the process rather than the result with his activities and games. But the funny part of this moment (the having him tell his Grandma, “Congratulations”) is that I felt a route voice appear for the first time…something about manners over sincerity frightened me. And I also don’t want to squelch the eager way he attacks problem solving and his quest to know and acheive more.
But yes, when people ask me what I want for my children–clearly it isn’t a title or a few letters after their name. If anything, I would love to have my two boys grow up and describe themselves as content. Secure. Supported.Loved. How wonderful that would be….And I wonder about Peter as well, but don’t know his phone number to ask him if he is happy always winning after all.
I tell my daughter it’s okay to lose as long as she gave her best. It’s hard for a 4-year old, especially being the only child at home, to experience and understand losing. We see that tantrum a lot when she loses…
I personally want my child to be competitive to make sure she “stays in the game.” Be realistic, this is a competitive world. She will have to compete with other kids in sports, in education, and later in life, career, etc. So I gotta prepare her for that.
But at the same time I want her to able to take it when she loses and be gracious about others winning. It’s hard for me to find that balance to teach her that losing is okay but stay competitive!
As a parent, I hate to see my daughter hurts in anyway, but I also know that I gotta prepare her for that. I play games with her where I let her win then purposely not let her win so she understands we don’t win all the time. I put her in the losing mood then use that opportunity to teach her it’s how it feels and it’s part of life. Then I encourage her to play the game again and see if she really tries her best. If she does, I let her win again, so she knows in theory she could win if she gives her best. I know that’s not always true in real life but this simple concept works for now for a 4-year old.
I have a sore loser, too. Welcome to age 5?
I don’t think your actions dampen his competitive spirit or dull his problem solving skills. Competing and losing are two separate events. While competing, I want my child to not only try her best, but play with the intent to win and the belief she can. There are many teachable moments in a sport or game to teach good sportsmanship and other values. I don’t want her pulling punches or thinking that her efforts matter less because there’s a chance she might lose.
After the game is finished… Being a good sportsman when one loses is just as important as teaching them to compete. It means being gracious to others, having awareness of one’s emotions, the self discipline to control one’s emotions, maturity to handle disappointment, self respect self properly, appropriate social boundaries to not inflict one’s emotions on others. You didn’t tell your son that he’s not allowed to feel disappointed. You told him that he’s not allowed to spoil the game for you or otherwise inflict his negative feelings on you. Peter Theil needed better parenting so that he could grow up to be a more emotionally stable individual.
How about teaching F the more traditional handshake and nod. Or high five and “good game.” Sort of tone it down to an appropriate gesture that he can make sincerely at his age?
It was supposed to be lantern not lateen.
I know our kids are young, but I really wonder how much of this stuff in nurture vs nature. ESP with competition and the “edge” competitive athletes have etc.
In regards to the robotic voice, I still do this in my marriage as an adult. There are plenty of times I want to get in a fight with my wife but a robotic – thank you dear or ok that sounds good is the right thing for my marriage and is the best I can do at the time until the feeling passes. Part of what we are teaching kids with those robotic congratulations is not to enjoy losing but that often the bad feeling of losing will leave and grandma will still be there. It actually makes sense to give them a line like “congratulations” because it is something they can say that is not a lie. In thinking about this, I think I might add to my instruction – E you don’t have to like doing it, but you have to say congratulations because it is polite. Just like I would encourage him to say hi and be polite to kids he doesn’t really like – you don’t have to be friends but I expect you to be nice. I’m still learning this as an adult, so o don’t expect him to master it. My wife often says it is harder to think your way into right action than it is to act your way into right thinking.
Dr. Gwenn says
It’s a complicated issue, actually, with many societal factors, too. Having two daughters now in high school, one of my biggest concerns is we’re raising kids who not only don’t know how to lose but don’t know how to win. Over the last decade, they’ve been given the message by parent and teachers that “everyone is a winner”. This is reinforced by just about everyone getting an award in something at awards night in high schools across the country and everyone getting a ribbon at field day for “winning” something. The reality is that not everyone is deserving of an award all the time. Not everyone wins each and every time. If we continue on this path, once our kids get into the real world, they’ll be in for the shock of their life.
How do we “fix” this? We let our kids learn to win and lose with grace? And, we let them lose when they lose and win when they win. It’s when they are young that it’s A-Ok to have their times to pout and be unhappy. That’s how they deal with the tough emotions of not always winning.
In many ways, it’s not the kids who need to learn to lose but us adults who have to recognize it’s ok for them to lose.
Shelly Butler says
I love this related NYT article:
Keep up the good work, MotherDoctor!
I only wanted to add that I read that same article in the New Yorker and afterwards I reflected on it from the point of view of a parent ( other things inspire me to think from the point of view of a patient, a daughter, a programmer, etc — other roles I play or have played ). I know Peter Thiel is wildly successful in the conventional sense but I hope my children don’t turn out like him. I want them to enjoy people, have lots of friends, love and be loved. I think being a good loser is important and so is being nice and getting along with others. So well done on your articulate parenting lesson!
Carly Thurman says
That’s great! This reminds me of the episode on Parenthood, where they are teaching Sydney how to be a humble “loser” and that everyone deserves a chance to win at some point. I think it’s so important to teach kids the healthy approach to competition, especially with how competitive kids (and parents) are today. Great job!
picadillo alvarez says
I think competing with one another is immoral on any context. We should be teaching
kids to work together on problem solving, build something. The more competition there
is in the world, the more miserable it will be.
The only good lesson there is when playing games is that things are
not always going to be the way you want them to and one needs tools to deal with it.
Now if you go out fishing with your son and he sees the you are catching many fish and not him, what you ought to do is teach him the method you are using to catch them.
that’s how things should be, helping each other out.