Zen and the Art of Letting Your Kids Win (or Not)

There is a burning question that rages through the hearts and minds of parents everywhere when they play games with their kids. Simply put, should the parent, with their years of experience, knowledge, and advanced skills, allow their kids to win a game or two? That is to say, should one purposely throw the game or play poorly so as to handicap one’s own self for the greater good of the child kingdom?

But, if you let your kids win, do you cheat them or help them? Are you doing more harm than good? Are you over thinking this or are you not giving it the time and energy it deserves?!?! Aaarrgh!

Lots of different points-of-view on this and they are as varied as the many different parenting styles, parents, and children in the world. My point-of-view is pretty straight forward. Games are meant to be (1) fun and (2) a learning experience. I’m a big supporter of positive reinforcement and so I do let me kids win the games. Better put, I help them to win. I do make them work for that victory, though. After all, I will not play the game for them because that would ruin the point of playing a game in the first place. Instead, I practice three very simple guidelines whenever I play more complex games with my two sons and when I am introducing a new game to them.

  • Discussion and Review
    When it is my turn to play, I make it a point to detail what I am doing and why. I explain my reasoning and how I hope the end result will help me. This is, admittedly, providing my sons all the information they would need to beat me in the game, too, but it also helps them to see how their father is playing the game and how the game responds. It also provides my sons with the ability to start trying to out maneuver me. This has happened several times, actually, and I was very excited about it! When I explained a move to my oldest son, he then explained on his turn how he was going to counter me! I also encourage my sons to talk about their turn, too, if they feel the need. I don’t force it as I want them to be thinking about what is going on in the game inside their head. When they feel uncomfortable with a choice they made or will have to make, they simply start talking about it and we all work on the issue together, which brings me to my second guideline.
  • The “What If” Metagame
    There are only so many immediate causes and effects for a single game action. If you move your piece to a certain location on the board, for example, there is a finite number of things that can or cannot happen immediately. Of course, the number of effects increases as the game continues which demonstrates the need to be critical about your moves and how they might or might not effect the end game in the future, not just the “here and now”. To that end, I play the “What If” metagame with my sons. This metagame (or, “a game within the game”, if you will) allows my sons and I to try out different scenarios regarding what might happen. This gives them an opportunity to try out new things without actually hurting their own chances of winning the game. It is, essentially, “thinking ahead” like Chess Masters do all the time. If my sons begin to see the games in its entirety instead of just focusing in on their immediate move, they begin to get a better grasp of the game as a whole. But even that cannot always save them from making a bad move, which brings me to my third and last guideline.
  • Learn and Move On
    After every game, we take a moment to discuss what we liked about it, what we would have done differently, and congratulate everyone who played. Playing a board game is sharing a common experience and we make certain to acknowledge that fact. Everyone in my family shares in the victories. We also take this time to work on my sons’ emotional coping skills. Let’s face it, no one likes to lose. We focus on how well each child did, help them understand that the best thing they can do is learn from the experience and they will be a stronger more experienced player the next time. When we play games of luck, we make certain to point out that some situations in life are simply out of their control and there is no reason in the world to dwell on them negatively. After all, it is just a game, but there is always a lesson to be learned or reinforced.

My guidelines are what work for me and mine. They are not meant to be universal or even to suggest that my tact is the right way. Indeed, every child is different and each parent brings to the table their own strengths and weaknesses. There are many different ways to view this. Speaking of which, the other fathers at Father Geek have taken the time to reflect on this very subject and have provided their own thoughts on it.

Meng:


When my children and I first started playing games, winning was much less important than the shared experience of gaming itself. Most games were more luck-based than skill-based anyway, and games such as Go Away, Monster! not only allowed everyone to taste “victory”, but also encouraged players to help one another towards their goals. Now that we are playing more games of skill, playing to win is more of a priority, but still less important than enjoying the game for its own sake.

There is a fundamental honesty about trying one’s best; thus, we talk about giving an “honest effort”. In a non-physical pursuit such as tabletop gaming, I am hard-pressed to find reasonable excuses for adults to under-perform so that a child has a better chance of winning. If a child has difficulty coping emotionally with a loss, then that is a challenge to be addressed, not avoided. If the game is too difficult for a child to play competitively, then the game should be simplified (e.g., Carcassonne without farmers, or The Kids of Carcassonne) or another game chosen.

Another option is to play the game with a handicap (e.g., playing Chess a piece down, or using handicap stones in Go). I consider this to be entirely different from “letting your child win”, and much more acceptable. Although the handicap gives your child a better chance of winning, it is transparent and allows the stronger player to continue to play to the best of his ability.

I am impressed by the complexity of games that my children have been able to grasp. What impresses me even more, though, is that they can play competitively and yet not mind losing. My son, for example, considers a narrow loss as a badge of honor; if he wins, he runs through the house, loudly proclaiming his margin of victory. In my opinion, a single such victory is worth one hundred “cheap” wins.

Karl:


At age six for my son and age four for my daughter, I have finally been able to introduce games that as Meng put it, have less luck and introduce more choices to achieve victory. Games such as Checkers or Risk present a great opportunity to teach your child what you are doing on your turn, as well as where they might have gone wrong in a game. My general explanation to my son is that we should all learn from our losses and, hopefully, do better next time. Additionally, I explain to him that by me presenting a challenge to him, I am helping him learn how to play and think at an older level and be able to play more complex games with me.

My six year-old son still has some issues with emotional coping, especially in “push your luck” games. With luck-based games, there isn’t much I can do about the result of a die roll in the game; therefore, I need to explain that games with luck can go either way. If dice are involved, I have gone as far as teaching my son about probability by re-recreating the natural bell curve that results from multiple rolls of a six-sided die. This might be going farther than I needed to, but it was a fun exercise for both of us as he loves to roll dice and I love to teach him advanced concepts for his age.

My four year-old daughter, on the other hand, just loves to play the games with Daddy and has far less of an issue when the games does not go her way. My son was not so easygoing at age four! When my daughter plays with my son and I, it works out well if he beats her. She still has fun and he’s overjoyed that he won.

Because the games we are playing more recently have a decreasingly smaller amount of luck and introduce more interaction between opponents, I also try and make the game fun with the introduction of “trash talk”. Now, at this age, “trash talk” is used more to enhance the theme through the use of sounds rather than actual words. For example, in a recent game of Survive, I would make “chomping” sounds as my movement of the shark or when the sea monster would cause one of their player tokens to be taken out of the game. I feel this playful behavior added to the theme of the game and I encouraged my kids to do the same. My daughter seemed to have more fun with it than my son, but in the end, my son came around. Both kids still love this game as a result.

I believe that by not letting your kids win, you are teaching them basic strategy & tactics as well as strengthen their emotional coping skills. Letting them win might boost their confidence in the short term, but in the end, it creates a fantasy that might let them down harder later in life. Granted, playing games is first and foremost about having fun, but it is also a great opportunity to teach our children skills that can be used in other areas of life.

Brian:

Evan, Brian, and Chase
I never let my kids win. Games are meant to be fun and a learning experience. Both of these objectives can be achieved with or without letting the kids win. Whether or not you let them win determines what you do to make it fun, and is also relevant to what you want to teach them.

My two boys right now absolutely love playing games with me. They know it’s something I value for my free time, and therefore are overjoyed to share the experience with me. They really do not care if they win right now; the same victory dance is shared regardless of me winning or my 2 year-old winning.

How does one separate the winning from the fun? With my two boys ages 4 and 2, it is quite easy. Just a smile, a cheerful demeanor, a funny voice, some sound effects, or some little flourished motion. Having fun with your kids while gaming is no different than having fun with your kids doing anything.

Like any activity with children, routine is an important concept that should not be overlooked with gaming. At its most basic, taking turns is a routine, but if you start to attach routine fun triggers to various things in a game, the kids get overjoyed. When we draw a double red in Candy Land (the current favorite game for my kids), we make a particular funny face and laugh. If somebody draws a teleport card, much whooping and rejoicing is done all around. If one of us lands in a licorice space (lose a turn), then we dip over the gingerbread man, we all tip over backwards onto our backs, and much laughing ensues.

I do these types of things in every game I play with my kids. It makes the game more fun for them, and it makes an otherwise terrible game fun for me to play as well. My kids light up with joy during the game but this is not due to winning the game.

Aside from the aspect of fun, I am also trying to teach my kids a core value on how to roll with the punches. Things in life are not going to turn out how they want them to. Like all of us, they will be dealt disappointments and bad times along with the good. I want to teach them to enjoy the journey, not the destination; to learn from their mistakes and experiences without having it impact their self-worth. It’s never too early to start teaching cause and effect. Good choices help lead to better results, but not always.

Am I a gaming tyrant? Not completely. Like Meng, I do think placing handicaps is appropriate, and I do not consider that to be letting a kid win. Ultimately, games are for leisure, and are for fun. A handicap serves the purpose of not completely beating them down, but still instilling the value of working for your win.

Nate:


The biggest reason I play games with my kids is that I want them to learn to enjoy games. Because of that, I’m always tempted to let them win. I think that if they win, they’ll start liking games more. But I have to remind myself that this isn’t necessarily true. When I was a kid, the older children I played with never let me win. Somehow, I learned to enjoy games anyway.

I don’t think losing is what made me enjoy games. But there might have been a little instigator in me, insisting on playing again, defiant of the odds, and hoping in vain that this time, this move, this roll, will finally land me in the winner’s circle. Defeat taunted me. Revenge tempted me. Justice commanded me. The Instigator didn’t make me love games, but it did make me play games. I don’t think that was the whole reason I became a gamer, but it was probably a part of it. The love for games must have come by a different route.

So beating your kids at a game won’t necessarily destroy their love for games, but there’s also a secondary issue here. If you decide not to let your kids win, how hard do you try? Do you really play to the best of your ability and likely crush them, or do you let them inch close to victory, only to snatch it out from under them like the only piece of candy they’ll get all year?

Sometimes, I’ll go between all these extremes in the course of a single game. I still haven’t hit on anything that really feels right.

But maybe that’s the whole thing. None of these ideas feel right because all of them are about who wins, and that’s not why we play. We play to have fun, to bond, to grow, and to learn. So maybe, if I can get this through my head, I won’t worry about who’s winning. I’ll worry about how we’re playing. And if I can do that, I bet my kids will catch on, too.

Hey! Guess what! I bet you have your own opinion on this and we’d love to hear it. Post a comment and let us know your point of view! Agree with Brian? Heartily disagree with me? Have your own take on the answer? Don’t keep it to yourself! Post your thoughts! You might also be interested in what the Board Game Family has to say, too. Clearly, everyone has an opinion.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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8 Responses to Zen and the Art of Letting Your Kids Win (or Not)

  1. Cyrus says:

    For those of you who have been asking me about the “A Winner Is You” image…

    “A Winner Is You” originates from the NES video game Pro Wrestling. The context it appeared in was when you won a match. Gotta love the classics.

  2. Those are some good insights! With our 5 year old daughter, we will often simplify things. Oddly enough, we came to the same conclusion as Meng to remove the farmers from Carcassonne, and she loved it. SImilarly Settlers of Catan without the robber. We don’t “let her win”, but she definitely does sometimes. We do avoid straight-out cutthroat playing, though. Great post!

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