Competition and Children

Do you let your children win?
-Julie Ryan Evans, BettyConfidential.com

When we first got the Wii last year, Nolan and I played quite a bit of some target-shooting game. I wasn't very good, and neither was he, but it was fun. I was determined to keep beating my score and get better at knocking the little birds out of the sky. One night at dinner, though, he told my husband, "Mommy beat me at like 20 games today."

"You don't let him win?" my husband asked me, with more than a trace of accusation.

"No, do you always let him?" I asked.

"Yes, it's good for his self-confidence."

I disagreed and told him that I think he'll gain more confidence if he works hard and gets good enough to beat me on his own. I don't think letting him win is doing him any favors at all. Because, like it or not, life is a series of competitions - from the soccer field to the classroom to finding a mate or a job, and no one is going to be throwing those games.

Of course, I also don't think that everyone on the Little League team should get equal playing time. I think if you're good, you earn the right to play more; if you're not, then you should work harder to earn more playing time. I don't think everyone should get medals for participating just so they don't feel bad that they didn't win.

Call me heartless (my husband probably would), but I think there's enough sense of entitlement and such a rampant void of work ethic in this world that we have to work hard to instill values of competition and hard work in our children, even over games of Candy Land. A friend of mine recently argued that it's this same mentality of entitlement that got our country into its current financial mess - people feeling entitled to own homes that were completely out of their means. While that's an oversimplification, there's some truth there.

I asked another mother if she lets her children win, and she said yes, usually. I told her my theory, and she had a different view. She said her husband (a very successful physician) had grown up with a father who always let him win every game they played. He wanted him to get used to winning, so that he grew to like it, to expect it and would work hard to always win because that's what he expected of himself.

Nolan and I went for a run together the other night, just one loop around our neighborhood - about a mile. He got tired halfway around and told me his legs hurt. "Just keep going, that pain is the weakness leaving your body," I shouted as he moaned and whined.

Eventually he started running again, with a couple breaks of walking. The whole time I was offering what I hoped were encouraging words: "be tough," "push yourself," "compete!"

We managed to complete the loop, and as we cooled down with a little water, I asked him when he wanted to go running with me again. He said, "next year," and I haven't been able to get him to go again.

So did I push him too hard? Should I have just told him it was OK to walk? I don't know.

I want him to push himself, to challenge himself in everything he does, but I also don't want to be that parent ... who pushes too hard. While I want him to always strive to win at everything he does, I also don't want him to be devastated by loss. I've seen way too many Lifetime movies and after-school specials where the children pushed to perfection end up anorexic, suicidal, drug-addicted messes.

It's not that I care if he's the best, if he brings homes the medals; it's that I want him to always try to be, to do his best. To settle for mediocrity is one of the most frightening fates I could see for my children. Being average is OK, but not striving for more is unacceptable. I want him to learn to accept defeat gracefully but never to expect defeat.

I'm about as competitive as one can get, but I honestly can't think of many things I've ever "won." I'm a slow runner; I wasn't at the top of my class in high school or college; I've never won any big awards or competitions that I can call to mind; and I know how badly losing hurts. But I compete - even if it's just with myself - in everything I do from working out, to cooking meals for my family to parenting. Because I could run faster, and I could cook healthier meals, and I could be a more patient parent. So shouldn't I try? And shouldn't I encourage my children to do the same?

As for Wii, it's not an issue in our house anymore. After a long haitus on my part, I picked up my remote last week and played game after game with him. There was no way, no matter how hard I tried, that I could beat him - even if I had wanted to. He's gotten good!

So how do you strike a balance - teach children to compete, teach them to push themselves, but not push them to a point where they're frustrated and devastated by failure? And how much do you think is nature versus nurture? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Read Julie's latest blog "The Right Parenting Skills to Raise a Girl."

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