Letting your toddler win

If Baby is like most two-and-a-half-year-olds, they probably love to play all kinds of games with you. But whether you play cards or a board game together, when things start to get competitive, eventually you encounter the dilemma of whether or not to let them win.

And the winner is…

The topic of whether or not to let a toddler win games comes with a lot of strong feelings. Some parents and experts oppose throwing games so kids always win. They feel it places too much importance on winning, and allows children to miss out on valuable life lessons that come with learning to lose gracefully. In fact, one study from Amherst College revealed that when children win consistently not by their own skill, it gets in the way of their ability to notice helpful information that could help them out in the future.

On the other hand, some parents feel that there’s plenty of time to teach concepts like sportsmanship. Toddlers already deal with a significant amount of frustration over language, emotions, and self-control, and parents in this camp just don’t want to create more drama by having every parent-child game end with tears and turmoil. Kenneth Barish, a clinical associate professor of Psychology at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, says it’s okay for parents to let younger children occasionally win, and that kids can learn to deal with issues around losing over time.

There’s more to play than meets the eye

Children learn by doing, and play gives them the opportunity to learn, grow, express themselves, and communicate what’s going on with them developmentally. When you play with Baby, it’s not only a time to bond and have fun – it’s also an important, teachable moment. As your child’s best role model, you can show Baby both how to win and how to lose when you lead by example.

While you’ll ultimately have to decide how you feel about this question as a family, there are a few factors it can be helpful to keep in mind.

  • Pick your moment: If you’ve been letting Baby win consistently and want to see what happens with another outcome, think carefully about timing. This sudden change may be even more difficult to accept if they are getting over a cold or missed a nap.
  • Think ahead: Sometimes with toddlers, we pick our battles (two different shoes, why not?). If you’ve decided that, for now, it’s easier to let Baby win than to deal with a tantrum, you may want to think about what that might mean for the future. By letting them win all the time, you may give Baby the impression that winning is the only thing they can do. While that may be a harmless concept with a weekend board game, it could be another matter when organized sports begin.
  • Model good behavior: Whether you’re okay with your toddler’s “winning streak,” or more willing to let the chips fall where they may during parent-child games, one of the big lessons they are going to learn is about sportsmanship. Keeping an even keel whether you win or lose – no over-the-top cheering or sulking – and instead keeping your focus on how much you enjoyed playing the game, regardless of the results, will teach Baby a lot about how to react in competitive situations.

As you navigate winning and losing with your toddler, it’s true that they're learning a lot, but it’s also important to remember the very things you probably tell them some days – it’s just a game, and it’s supposed to be fun.

  • Kenneth Barish, PhD. “Winning and Losing: Helping Children Learn to Accept Defeat Gracefully.” PsychologyToday.com. Psychology Today. 9/24/12. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pride-and-joy/201209/winning-and-losing
  • Amherst College. “Let Your Kids Lose: Success Inhibits Preschoolers’ Ability to Establish Selective Trust.” ScienceDaily.com. Science Daily. 12/6/16. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161206125158.htm
  • Carolyn M. Palmquist, Vikram K. Jaswal, Ashleigh Rutherford. “Success Inhibits Preschoolers’ Ability to Establish Selective Trust.” ScienceDirect.com. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Vol. 152, December 2016, Pages 192-204. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022096516301035?via%3Dihub
  • “24-36 Months: Social-Emotional Development.” Zerotothree.org. Zero to Three. 2/22/10. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/241-24-36-months-social-emotional-development
  • “Eyes on the Prize.” Healthy Children Magazine. HealthyChildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/15.  https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sports/Pages/Eyes-on-the-Prize.aspx
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