Parent’s often think it necessary to let their children win at board games. But I disagree, strongly.

There aren’t many opportunities for children to feel equal to parents. Much of the time, children have their schedules mapped out for them. They are reliant on and answerable to their parents for most things. This creates a necessary imbalance; a world in which parents make most of the decisions and manage the flow of each day. If you’ve ever created opportunities for your children to take the lead, or at least, be equal decision-makers you’ll have noticed how they rise to the occasion.

With so many aspects of family life dependent on parents, it’s lovely to find things that allow children to take part as equals. Playing board games is one of those activities. If you choose your games carefully (and avoid those which reward knowledge and deep strategic understanding), everyone begins each game with a level playing field. Every player, young or old, has just as much opportunity to win as every other. This balance can be liberating and exciting for children (and for parents).

But this beautiful state of balance is upset when parents let their children win. Of course, I don’t mean that children shouldn’t be allowed to win, far from it. I mean that parents should not play poorly just to let their children win. Here are 7 reasons why:

  1. Children learn from observing other players. The decisions the winner has made, the tactics they’ve used in various situations and their overall strategy during the game is a learning tool. It is not always easy (or possible), particularly for children, to predict all the outcomes of decisions. So having models of successful game play to learn from is essential to building up a strategy.
  2. Children excel when expectations are high. When competing as equals children often out-perform parents’ expectations of them. Left to make their own decisions within a game, children begin to form their own strategies and tactics based on observation, trial and error. When acting independently and without being cushioned, players are more likely to remember the consequences of past decisions and use these to inform future play.
  3. Parents are critical role models. If parents under-perform on purpose, that sends a poor message: a broken model. Children may actually believe that that is as well as the parents can do. We need our children to look up to us. Parents should be aspirational role models.
  4. Playing board games is not about winning. Letting children win sends a very poor message about why we play games. The enjoyment from playing board games should come from spending time together as a family, from experimenting and developing skills and strategies, from focusing on something totally different for a while. Playing, not winning. By letting children win, parents are shifting this balance and making winning far too important.
  5. If children are always allowed to win, they’ll never be happy if they don’t. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. The more parents let their children win, the more they have to let their children win – to prevent ugly showdowns and messy explosions. It is our responsibility as parents to teach our children how to behave in all sorts of situations. Losing at a board game is a very minor blip and it’s important for parents to keep reinforcing that message, even when it is really hard to do so.
  6. Losing at board games teaches us how to fail. It is futile for parents to try to cushion their children against any failure in life. No parent has that amount of control. Failure is part of life and what better way to learn how to cope with it than in the very safe setting of tabletop gaming. If children can’t cope with losing a board game, then they are going to be less able to cope with other failures and rejections as they get older. Giving children an opportunity to get used to failing and losing is a critical part of developing resilience. Read 7 ways board games teach us to learn from failure to find out more.
  7. Children won’t know when they’ve legitimately won. If parents always let their children win, they are depriving them from the fabulous feeling of actually beating their parents. It might take years for a child to beat his grandad at chess if he always plays properly, but when the child does win… wow, that is a day that will never be forgotten. 

If you’ve fallen into the trap of letting your children win – and it’s really easy to do – the good news is that it’s relatively simple to start to redress the balance. Aim to remove the emphasis on who wins. Instead, look for good decisions that your children are making through the game and make a big deal of them. Notice when they make considered choices, when they take risks and when they try out a new strategy and make a point of giving warm, genuine praise. Brush over the end of the game, play down the importance of winning and instead focus your attention on excellent game play. When the rewards for success are removed, winning doesn’t seem so important any more. 

I almost always lose against my children now, although I always try to win. Read more here. You might also be interested in reading this article by Lyn Fry, psychologist, about whether you should let your children win at games.

I know this is a contentious subject and I’m really keen to hear what you think. Please do share your own experiences and views in the comments below.