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Playing Games With Your Kids: Win, Lose, or Draw?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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Playing Games: Fun and Learning

Parents and child development experts alike agree that play is an essential part of growing up. Kids learn while playing – there’s really no argument there. Like lion cubs wrestling in the den, we recognize that the games children play prepare them for life as adults. While our kids aren’t necessarily learning to fight for their lives by tooth and claw, they’re learning skills that will apply directly to various situations later on in life.

When they’re young, physical activity at the playground – monkey bars, play structures, rope ladders, and the like – strengthens their growing bodies and lays the groundwork for a healthy and vital existence. Imaginative games during preschool and elementary school – roleplaying with dolls, puppet shows, playing dress-up and superhero – prepares their minds for the liveliness and creativity many professions demand. Organized sports like soccer, basketball and baseball teach kids teamwork, discipline and often how to handle the ups and downs of winning and losing. Individual pursuits like martial arts or yoga teach lessons similar to team sports, just in slightly different ways.

The lessons kids learn from games don’t stop with adolescence: what changes is the lessons. They get more important, more impactful, more transferrable to adulthood, and, overall, more difficult to learn – which often makes them more powerful than the games they played when they were school age.

Playing Games: Competition

Along with play comes competition: it’s widely recognized that competition can bring out both the best and worst in people. It can drive people to accomplish great things and drive them to achieve goals that they might not have been able to realize without that extra impetus, but it can also turn the other way.

Sometimes winners aren’t so gracious in victory, and sometimes people on the losing end of a game can take it hard. While winning at an early age can boost confidence, losing at an early age can sour a kid to an activity that otherwise might have brought them great joy for years. When kids are playing each other, whether on the playground or on the sports field, in front of video games or at board games, it’s fairly easy to manage the consequences. Nature prevails, games unfold as they will, and adults step in after the fact and look at both winning and losing as teachable moments that kids can learn from. Adults teach kids how to productively process things from both sides, and give them the tools to move forward with new knowledge and experience.

What happens, though, when adults get involved in the games? What’s the right thing to do? Should adults let kids win, or give them tough love and a dose of reality? Should an adult let a kid win a game of tic-tac-toe? A game of h-o-r-s-e in the driveway? A little footrace from the mailbox to the front door? And when those kids reach adolescence, does all that change? Should a grown adult try their hardest when playing games against their teenage children? Should they try their hardest up to a certain point – to make it harder – then let them win anyway?

Age-Specific Lessons

There are no iron-clad, right or wrong answers to these questions. Every parent will have his or her own take on what’s right, and most opinions have everything to do with how parents themselves were raised. There are, however, some solid rules of thumb to consider when playing games with kids of any age:

Build Their Confidence

If the game is developmentally appropriate, they should win some of the time. At risk of contradicting the statement “there is no right or wrong answer”, a five-year-old learning to play tic-tac-toe should probably be allowed a free pass at the beginning. However, feel free to beat a ten-year-old at will – but if you sense them becoming defeated, give them one. Teens are a different story: while you probably won’t be playing tic-tac-toe, you should make whatever game you play with them challenging.

Make it Fair

Find team games and pair younger kids with older kids, so they can learn from the older kids and get a feel for what they’re doing. This will also spread out the feel of losing, if it comes to that. You can also create special rules: during card games, kids can start with extra cards. During board games, kids can start a few places ahead of adults. That way they can still compete, but they have a better chance of tasting success. Again, the teen years are a different story: no gifts, no special rules, no head starts. It’s time for them to learn to win and lose like adults.

Model Positive Behavior

Kids don’t necessarily come with a good sportsperson gene hard-wired into their personalities. It’s up to the adults to teach them to congratulate winners when they win, and support those who don’t win. This is critical from the very beginning, but especially important for teenagers playing competitive sports. Their egos get involved. Their social status is involved. When they lose, they can take a tailspin – remind them the goal of sport is to become a better person, not only to win a game. When they win, remind them it’s a by-product of their hard work. And the only thing they’re allowed to say to their competition is some version of “Great game!”

It’s Not About the Game

Playing with your kids is far more about quality time spent together than who eventually wins or loses the game. When your five-year-old girl says, “Daddy! Mommy! I’m fast as a cheetah! Let’s race to that tree!” it might not be the right moment to draw on your collegiate sprinting pedigree and show the kid who’s boss. When the same girl is sixteen and has visions of being a track star – that’s different. A more competitive approach could be exactly what’s needed. At the end of the day, the decision is up to the parent.

One thing is certain, though: no matter where a child is in terms of competition and seriousness in any given sport or activity, what they need from their parents is unconditional love and support. In some cases, parents are also coaches or mentors in a particular sport or activity, but for the most part, it’s a good idea to leave the coaching up to the coaches, because kids will always want to be champions in their parent’s eyes – win, lose, or draw.

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