A Little Friendly Competition

It used to be that when we played games, Manchild was happy just to participate. Every match found in Memory was a victory — whether it was his match or not. Every round of The Loser Game was a joy to be a part of — even if he wound up with the loser sign around his neck at the end. But in the past few weeks, everything has changed. He’s grown up a little. He’s realized there’s more to games than just playing. He’s felt the sting of defeat and the joy of victory. And he’s become quite the little competitor.

I’m not sure what to make of it, or how to deal. On Wednesday he lost his Loser Game privileges after he had a meltdown from losing one too many times and crying for the next hour. (In my defense, I was helping him as much as I could, but in the end it was just luck and I was, unfortunately, luckier than he was.) I’d love to help him learn to be a good loser and a gracious winner, but I’m really not much of an example on either account. Especially when it seems to conflict with other traits I want my children (and myself) to develop as well.

Let me explain.

This afternoon I asked Manchild if he wanted to play Memory. We have two sets of the game: one with 24 matches, the other with 35. I let him pick. “I want to do the one with more, because that one is harder and you say that I can do hard things,” he said.

It’s true. I do say that. I say that because so often he tells me things are too hard, that he doesn’t want to do them. (Meanwhile, his 21-month-old brother does them like they are his job.) And so we played the harder one, the one with 35 matches.

Every few turns we counted how many matches we had, just to be sure he was still ahead. I botched my chances, lead him to the right cards, and pretended to not know things that I really knew. In the end, he had 22 matches to my 13 and we were both happy. He was a fairly gracious winner, and I was a good loser. He did a hard thing (sort of). And I hope his confidence grew a little bit and he is a little less afraid of a challenge.

But on the other hand, he can’t win all the time. I can’t let him and I can’t protect him when he does lose. So I hope that when he’s up against someone who wants to win just as much as he does, and isn’t willing to let him slip by, he’ll still want to do hard things. I hope he won’t mind the challenge, and that he even learns to love it. I hope that, eventually, each defeat is motivation to try harder, to learn, to make changes, to be happy for the accomplishments (and sometimes luck) of others,  and not an excuse to wallow in self-pity. I hope that for myself as well as for my children. Because I have plenty of room for improvement, too. And really, I should just be happy for the chance to participate.

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1 Comment

  1. When I play sight word bingo with my students, I always let them win. The reason is that learning to read for some of them is such a formidable, cobbled-together task that they need every encouragement, and winning is a sweet morale booster.
    With Julia, our granddaughter who is 51/2, we’ve found playing in teams reduces individual vulnerability. She always chooses Uncle Todd to be her teammate, and together, they are formidable. He lets her sit at command central, holding back when he has the answer if he thinks she’s got a chance to get it. When we play Pictionary (and we only select the words that she knows), Grandpa too holds back the answers on our side, and more than once I have had to walk out in fake dismay because he deliberately wasn’t getting my very clear pictures. Our major tasks when we play with her are to bring her forward and to share camaraderie. Choosing games in which she can be a real player is key. The ones we prefer are dominos, memory matching, Pictionary, and Ubongo (a game in which you place odd shaped pieces into a defined grid). With Ubongo, we no longer have to hold back; she can trounce everyone, but Uncle Todd, soundly. Her memory and space skills have rapidly coursed ahead to eclipse ours. It wasn’t always so. At one point, she and I would get the giggles because it was taking us such a long time to solve the puzzles. So games for us mean dramas, alliances, indirect and direct acquisition of skill sets (counting the totals on the dice, for instance), and much craziness and laughter. Winning or losing is immaterial, which I think is the way it should be at this age. What children don’t have at this point is enough experience in life to be able to interpret failure. What they do have is a deep sense of their own vulnerabilities and limits, so defeat to them can be overwhelmingly crushing. Why even go there? There will be plenty of time later, and many peers eager and willing to plunge them into the icy waters of losing. Better now just to let the games be all about community and skill gains. Learning to lose graciously can come later and, in the present, modeled by others. Personally, I don’t much like games, and I wouldn’t waste my time if they didn’t help us with one of the most meaningful games in town “Raising Julia.”


    lizzie Reply:

    I always love your comments, Aunt Ruth. This was a great reminder that there are so many other nuances to playing games than I tend to think about. We’re trying to focus less on winning and losing than on the skill sets that are within the game, and to help him realize how much fun he is having as he is playing, rather than focusing so much on the end result.


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