Winning and Losing in Father-Child Contests

by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.

Bob’s two teenage sons were challenging him in many ways physically—arm twisting and wrestling and so on—and they talked about racing him to see if they were faster. It leads to a common question for dads:

What’s the impact of winning or losing in competitions with my kids?

How long do our growing children take pride in our strength, even as we start to realize that it’s starting to fade? Should we let them win for their self-esteem, or keep doing our best?

It reminds me of the time I signed up for a parent-child 5K with my son Joel. He was on his high school cross-country team at the time, and he left me in the dust after about 50 yards. And maybe I was trying to hold on to my own pride, but it was tough on this old man. I was proud of Joel’s time, but it wasn’t fun losing like that.

It’s a bit of a conundrum for every dad that starts during your kids’ early years. Whether you’re in the driveway playing basketball, kicking a soccer ball, or sitting at a chessboard, there needs to be a balance, and there’s room to alter your approach as your children grow and mature.

Most of us would probably let a three-year-old beat us just barely in a race. At that age, it’s all good fun.

Imagine that you’re playing one-on-one basketball with your nine-year-old daughter. You drive past her to score easily, block every shot she tries, and win ten-zip. It might be an ego boost for you—although if that’s the case, there might be bigger questions to be asking. But it’s also likely that your daughter would be humiliated and possibly discouraged from staying with basketball if she had any aspirations of playing on a team. And she probably wouldn’t be eager to try that or other competitive games with you again.

On the other hand, it would definitely be appropriate to try your best when your daughter is sixteen and is bombing three-pointers and dribble-driving with both hands. After losing to you over and over, that first time she beats you will be a real accomplishment that you can celebrate together … once your ego has recovered.

And get ready, dad, because it will happen eventually. Your daughter will bank in a long set shot to beat you. Your son will come up with a sneaky checkmate when you’re really trying to win. Or he’ll leave you in the dust in a 5K.

Your children will likely surpass you in many ways—athletically, academically, artistically, etc. And ultimately, isn’t that what we want for them, to exceed us? it’s like a rites-of-passage moment for them. So be ready for it, and don’t get mad or make excuses. Swallow your pride and keep affirming and encouraging.

And during your child’s younger years, be aware of your child and respond accordingly. You know his or her personality, competitiveness and level of accomplishment. Maybe your daughter needs to be challenged, or even humbled. Maybe your son is discouraged about mistakes he made or shots he missed in the last game. Or maybe it’s just about having fun together. Maybe that’s the best goal:

Keep it a positive experience.

Exert yourself at a level that keeps it fun for them and competitive—if you’re able. If it’s a pursuit that’s really important for them, try hard enough so they’re challenged to keep doing their best and striving for excellence. If it’s more about just enjoying an activity together, then focus on that.

Then, whether you win or lose, you’ll both win in the long run because you’re continuing to grow your relationship. And that’s what it’s all about in the end.

What have you learned while playing games and competing against your kids? Share a nugget of wisdom with other dads on our Facebook page.

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There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.

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