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We've started playing some simple games with my 2-year-old son, including a simple age-appropriate matching game.

He enjoys playing, but seems (to me, at least) more focused on playing over winning. I think that's perfect.

However, I noticed last night that he always wins.

It turns out that my wife has literally been stacking the deck in his favor. When the game gets towards the end, she starts looking at the tiles, and checking to see if the next one dealt (she's the dealer) would be the winning card. If it would end the game with either her or I winning, she sets it aside and picks the next one. In at least one game she apparently deliberately put all of the tiles that matched her card at the very bottom so they wouldn't get drawn.

When I asked her about it, she said she thought he should win, and that winning would be more fun for him.

Setting aside the implications of lessons about cheating (let's assume that it was subtle enough, and that my son was distracted enough, that he had no clue that the deck was being manipulated), is there any problem with ensuring that he wins each time?

My concern, which I expressed to my wife, is that I want him to enjoy playing games for the sake of playing, and not for the sake of winning. I don't want him to expect to win each time, and then become disappointed when he doesn't. Is this a legitimate concern at his age, or is he simply too young to focus on the competitive side of games, and letting him win is nothing more than a harmless incentive to enjoy playing at this age?

If it isn't a problem at this age, when does it become a problem?

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My rule of thumb is to assess my opponent's ability to rip off my arms. If they can't, I play as I would normally; if they can, I let the wookie win. –  zzzzBov Feb 4 '13 at 20:56
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Are you sure your wife doesn't just want you to lose? She may be willing to go down for the team to make this happen :-) –  enderland Feb 4 '13 at 21:51
    
Out of curiosity -- my 3 yo child's curiosity, mind you: what is the game? I've been looking for games that were simple enough to play with him. –  barraponto Feb 11 at 12:17
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@barraponto We were playing the Goodnight Moon Game. Bye Bye Balloon is another simple one he enjoys. –  Beofett Feb 11 at 13:07
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12 Answers

up vote 60 down vote accepted

What makes a children's game a children's game is the element of chance generally greatly outweighing the element of strategy. In other words, it doesn't take much for a child to win legitimately.

I recently had the exact opposite experience as yours with my five year-old son. He got a new game for Christmas where you flip over two cards to find a match. I made a conscious decision not to let him win, and he didn't for the first 10 times or so we played. When he finally did win, he was ecstatic because he knew I didn't just hand it to him. Now he wins every third game or so, and he is learning both to win and lose graciously.

When he gets old enough for games requiring more strategy, I still won't let him win, but I'll give myself a handicap to even the odds. For example, when he learns chess I'll start out playing without a queen, but still do my best to win. That way winning is a real accomplishment for either of us, and seeing my handicap reduce over time will be a real long term accomplishment for him.

There's also the matter of the game needing to be fun for the adult in order for him to remain interested enough to continue playing. When the deck is stacked against you, it ceases to be fun. For example, when I play games with them, my stepdad frequently sacrifices his own position to help my mom win. I don't know if she doesn't notice, or just doesn't care, but it certainly takes the fun out of it for me.

I just read an interesting article on the subject. It basically states that trying to always keep your kid happy often results in them becoming unhappy adults, because they are not equipped to deal with disappointment. It's a long article, but well worth the read.

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I'd hesitate to say that I'm a happy adult because of the rough childhood I went through... I wouldn't appreciate what I have without all the "losing" I went through. This answer strikes me as spot on: Teach your kid how to win AND lose gracefully. –  WernerCD Feb 4 '13 at 19:53
    
+1 For the awesome link! –  TCSGrad Feb 4 '13 at 21:52
    
I was going to post an answer, but this encapsulates my theory on this perfectly. Especially so with 3 children - being fair as they all have to lose sometimes is very important! +1 –  Rory Alsop Feb 5 '13 at 11:31
    
Growing up (teenage years), my step-dad never let me win in sports, and I can definitely say that I really enjoyed the moments when I finally won. –  DaveShaw Feb 5 '13 at 12:55
    
Your first paragraph is misleading. A game is a game because it poses some sort of a challenge - and indeed, many children's games aren't much of a challenge for adults, but that isn't necessarily true, and I think it's beside the point anyway. –  reinierpost Feb 5 '13 at 18:06
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Just anecdata: we did this with our daughter (now 4.5), mostly because playing games about math was fun for all. We thought it would make it more fun for her, and get her more involved, if she won. Now we're reaping the whirlwind; she pouts and refuses to play games when she loses. So now we're having to undo the damage we did, and teach her that playing is important, not winning.

When our son is older (he's just now pushing 2), I'll hopefully know if it WAS the 'let her always win' strategy that backfired on us, or if it's just because she is who she is. Then again, I may not ever know. But my gut tells me that letting her win all the time set an expectation that she's SUPPOSED to win, and that if she doesn't win something went wrong and we, as the parent, have to fix it.

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+1 Same problem here :-( –  what 7 hours ago
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This raises the deeper question of: to what extent to you fabricate a phony reality for small children and until what age?

If there isn't a need to protect the child from anything in the given situation, it's probably better to stick to reality.

That a game can be lost is not some "harsh dose of reality" that must be revealed gradually, because the child's "little mind" cannot deal with it "all at once".

Games in fact are the gentle way for revealing the reality that important things in life don't always work out.

If the game is rigged, part of the purpose of the game is lost.

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I really like this answer and voted for it but wanted to offer up a few More ideas on the matter along the same lines.

Since he is two, if he does have an evening where he is just having a frustratingly unlucky night, occasionally stacking the deck to help regain the fun, won't hurt him any. Doing it all the time does set him up with unrealistic expectations and robs him of the chance to lose and lose well.

As my own daughter has developed to the point where she is playing games involving more strategy, before "handicapping" myself, we will often play a few "learning rounds." In these situations if I see a better move she is about to over-look, I'll say, "Are you sure that is the move you want to make?" If she says yes and goes for it, I let her fail and lose. If, on the other hand, she takes another look and wants feedback about what to move, I give her honest feedback (to my detriment) while playing. With something like Chess, I might point out three options and the merits or downfalls of each of the three when considering the next three likely series of moves. Then, I let her choose. We'll also play as "teams" for awhile with card games and things like that where she might play me or her dad (or another family member) with a "teammate" she can go to with questions or that might offer her "suggestions" as we play. It is a good "in-between" as they grow.

This kind of thing can even apply to something like "go-fish" because there is a bit of strategy in what you ask for. For example, "Are you sure you want to ask mommy for the zebra again? You've asked her three times and you haven't asked if I have it." This is helping, without helping him "cheat." because through this kind of helping he is getting pointers about how to play in a way that increases his liklihood of winning now and in future games.

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I find that the tricky part is realizing when they have progressed to the point that their proposed move may be better than what you had in mind. It seems my 9-yo beats me all the time in some games such as backgammon, so her level of risk tolerance in this game must be better than mine! –  half-integer fan Feb 7 '13 at 13:27
    
That's funny! I look forward to the day I can stop saying, "Are you sure you want to do that?" and still lose. At the same time, I'll cherish her needing my help while she does. –  balanced mama Feb 7 '13 at 14:34
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I don't advocate just letting your child win. However, it is entirely appropriate to adjust your level of play according to the age and abilities of the child. When playing sports against my kids, I don't let them win, but I don't go all out against them like I would against other adults my age as that wouldn't really be fun for either of us.

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We play simple card games (like Uno for kids) with our 3yo, and we let the cards decide without cheating. Sometimes I win, sometimes he wins. I cheer for him when he wins (but I don't praise, that's something else). I cheer for me when I win. Regardless who wins, the victory is briefly celebrated as the end of a fun game, and then we move on: play another round, or choose another game.

We let him learn to appreciate playing a game regardless of the outcome; let him learn that playing the game is the fun part while winning the game is not always important. We hope that this avoids him becoming a sore loser.

Because he's still too young for a discussion, you might want to show him by example that it's sometimes worth agreeing on the purpose of a game before you begin.

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I think this is a great question. My oldest is 4 (5 this week, actually) and he's gotten to the point where winning is important to him. So we're having to deal with this situation now where he's learning to lose gracefully. It's a process. I've never intentionally let him win at games or anything, although my husband will sometimes "race" him up the stairs and let him win (this is more of a ploy to get him in to bed than a game per se).

At age 2, he's probably not concerned with the competitiveness of playing games or sports. He probably doesn't really care who wins. To find out if he does, why not let him lose and see how he responds?

Even if he doesn't seem to care now, there will probably come a point where he will. I think we started seeing it in our son around age 4. I think one of my sisters-in-law saw it in her boys a little earlier (3 1/2 maybe?), but they sort of breed an air of competitiveness in their house. But it's only been in the past year or so that my son has started using phrases like, "I won" or "You lost".

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I expect that at this age your son doesn't really care about winning... and this is exactly the reason why it's a good moment to introduce losing! It could save him (and you) a lot of anguish later when he begins to care, because you (or his friends) will have to introduce losing at some point.

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I tend to try to balance it both ways. I have no problem with letting my kids win as long as it's not all the time. I feel like it's good for them to experience both winning and losing as it lets them realize that while they may not always win, sometimes they will and they can try hard to reach that and succeed. Whether this is the best way or not I'm not sure, I have a four year-old boy and an almost three year-old girl.

I suppose my approach is based on my own experience. I remember adults letting me win - it wasn't like I didn't realize it when it was something like a footrace, but I still liked it. Who knows, maybe it made me expect to be handed success? I also remember playing with adults where I could never win, and that was just no fun. Hence I try to land somewhere in the middle.

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If he gets to the point where you feel he has a good grasp of the concept of the game, start playing "for real". If he always "wins", then he won't understand that losing is just as important because it teaches how to be a good sport. Additionally, it helps you to see if he plays the game because he enjoys the game or enjoys winning.

Your son is too young right now, but as his little personality develops more, he may have a competitive streak. That might just be part of his nature. As a mom of three, I can say without a doubt that there are games that my kids like playing regardless of winning or losing but simply because they enjoy the game. But make not mistake about it, they are extra happy when they win. :)

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Welcome to the community! –  balanced mama Feb 7 '13 at 2:04
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I would never do this. It sets up an inappropriate sense of entitlement which will you will eventually have to deal with. Instead, consider games of chance so you have no skill advantage, and play fairly. If you can find a suitably short game, try playing many hands so that he both wins some and loses some.

One thing I did with my son when I thought he was too expectant of winning was to remind him beforehand that he might lose, so he was prepared for the possibility. He'd be like "let's play a game!!!" and I'd be like "OK, but you might lose! It could happen!".

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Personally, I've always hated playing games since with my father because he'd let me win. What was the point of playing if you kept winning? When I was a teenager, I refused to play games with him because he'd hand me some kind of unfair advantage. I think he took it a bit personally, but just saying that some lack of trust could be a side effect.

Me and my siblings ended up enjoying games because they were difficult to win. As a game developer, I find that an important factor in enjoying games is the difficulty curve. You don't want to scare them into thinking it's impossible, but teach them that victory can come easily, and throw in more difficult challenges.

I love the idea of playing with kids with some kind of handicap, like taking out the queen in chess, so that the child knows that he's still at a low level. You don't want to give them a feeling of entitlement. Instead teach them how the real world works.. teach them that people win and lose, and teach them that with the right knowledge and practice, they can win. At that age, they have plenty of time to learn strategies and master simple games (or even chess). It sets them up for the emotional impact of failure, and is a good time to teach them that if they keep trying, under the same conditions, they'll do better.

This reflects later in life as well. A good deal of my colleagues and elite university classmates were heavy gamers.. it taught us that if you keep slogging at something long enough, you'll succeed.

I would say that luck based games like cards and Monopoly are poor - children will find the luck factor frustrating. Something like checkers or a sport works best, where constant practice shows results quickly.

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