Let Them Lose: Four Lessons from Defeat Kids Need to Learn Early

“Just let him win.”

I am in the middle of game 12 or 13 of Chutes and Ladders with my four-year-old son when my wife says this. At issue is my son’s moaning because he wanted to spin a 4 to land on the huge ladder on square 28 that would take him up to square 84, but he spun a 5 instead.

Me, I’m somewhere near the top, a few more chutes in my path serving as potential pitfalls, but still a good 50 or so squares ahead of my son. He’s won some games, I’ve won some games, but in his little mind, losing at all is a cause for extreme frustration.

And losing does suck. But we all have to learn how to do it.

My son wants to keep spinning until he gets that 4. I tell him I don’t want to play otherwise; after he insists and spins until he does get a 4, I keep spinning until I get the number want.

“You can’t play that way!” he tells me.

“Why not?” I say. “You did. We either play by the same rules, or the game is no fun.”

All of which prompted my wife’s plea from the kitchen.

“Okay!” says my son, throwing his hands in the air. “I won’t do that any more daddy. Let’s play again!”

I nod and smile. I know he would get the concept. It just had to be explained to him.

*     *     *

Extreme? Why should I try to win against a four-year-old? Shouldn’t I just grow up?

I am not trying to win against him. I am trying to teach him how to play by the rules, how to lose, and how to win honestly.

I don’t know if this is a father/mother gender difference, harshness versus nurturing or whatever, but I think my son is old enough to start understanding these concepts.

At a certain point, letting kids win teaches all kinds of the wrong lessons. And if we want mentally tough adults, we have to start young.

I am not trying to be cruel to him, or to achieve any sort of victory over a little kid. I am trying to teach him how to handle adversity and overcome it.

Take a look at this piece from an 1861 issue of The Atlantic called “The Advantages of Defeat” written after the Union Army’s defeat at the Battle of Bull Run during the American Civil War:

The honor lost in our recent defeat cannot be regained,—but it is indeed one of the advantages of defeat to teach men the preciousness of honor, the necessity of winning and keeping it at any cost.

Bull Run was the first major battle of the Civil War, and the Union, thinking it would waltz to an easy victory, got whomped.

Now, we know how the war turned out, but the Union was really on the ropes for a while there at the beginning. Many bitter lessons learned through defeat–and what they did with those lessons–made all of the difference.

Am I really comparing playing board games with my son to the American Civil War? Yes. Because the same lessons are at play.

Learning how to lose is just as important as learning how to win.

Defeat teaches analysis. Far from damaging “self-esteem,” I would say that defeat inculcates it, as long as you are taught what to do with defeat: reassess, self-reflect, and learn from what happened. You see professional athletes do this all the time, losing big only to come back stronger and win it all. My favorite sports figure, NBA legend Bill Russell, used to obsessively pore over statistics, his team’s performance, and his own after every loss, using what he learned to try again the next game. And the guy won 11 championships in 13 years playing, two of them as a coach, so maybe there’s something to turning defeat into a positive.

Defeat teaches resilience. Sometimes a little bit of comeuppance is the best way to overcome irrational and dangerous overconfidence. In my own life, I’ve had plenty of instances where, having grown up in a cage of safety, I did not have resilience. I let defeat define me and didn’t get back up off the ground:

I didn’t bounce back and I sure as hell didn’t dust myself off and get back up. The very first thing I should’ve done after my unceremonious excision from the project I thought would take me to the next level should have been to call all of my musician friends–the drummers, the guitarists, the piano players, the singers–and create something new. There. That day. Instead, I almost didn’t even get my gear from the old practice space.

Why? Because I was depressed that the world didn’t care.

Typical millennial.

I expected to win, much like the Union Army at Bull Run. The world would be a much different place if the Union Army hadn’t suffered any defeats until later: Certain deficiencies in their battle plans and leadership might not have been discovered until it was too late and too costly to fix them.

I would much rather my son learn to lose early, and learn to use defeat as fuel rather than an anchor than to go through his twenties the way I did: A spoiled, whiny brat.

Defeat teaches social skills. For starters, learning how to play by previously agreed-upon rules is a great lesson for kids to learn. It’s one of the primary purposes of play, after all. But there are other social skills to be taught here.

Do you remember that one kid you palled around with who used to absolutely freak out after losing any game, whether it be basketball, chess, tag, kickball, or Monopoly? Do you remember sighing whenever that kid would step into the arena, knowing he or she would be red-faced, screaming, maybe even crying, if things didn’t go their way?

You don’t want to be that kid. And you don’t want your kid to be that kid.

Unfortunately, I was that kid, to a degree. I never got mad at other people when I lost, but I would get really angry at myself, which manifested itself as red-faced yelling and extreme displays of emotion. I was–and still am–quite competitive, but as a young man I didn’t learn how to control this until I was about 14 or 15 (I know, I was a late bloomer).

I would much rather have my son get the freaking-out phase finished at age 4 or 5 than 14 or 15 . . . or older.

Defeat teaches how to win. What greater sense of accomplishment is there than overcoming adversity to achieve a goal? Maybe meeting God, but that’s hardly a repeatable outcome. My point is this: If you’re given everything without working for it, you know that you really haven’t accomplished anything. This is pretty damaging to one’s mental health. And yet, the helicopter parenting style so prevalent these days inculcates this sort of upbringing to the children’s, and society’s, detriment.

Through defeat, you learn what true victory feels like. Through defeat, you learn how to actually do what it takes to win. Through defeat, you realize that setbacks are not the end of the world, but stepping stones to glory. And through victory, you learn to be humble.

All of the corny stuff said by your parents, your priests, your coaches, and the great men and women of the past, is true.

Much of this has to do with temperament and not just parenting, the whole “nature versus nurture” thing, though I won’t get into this now. My dad, for example, was a great teacher of these lessons.

I used to play Horse with him and my older brother. Both of them had much better jump shots than me (mine is still awful; my skills are all in the low post). I remember one particular evening when I was 10 or 11 and I just could not match their shots. I started to get frustrated and fume.

“Why can’t I win?” I blurted out, or something like that. “It’s not fair!”

“What do you want us to do?” my dad said, draining another long jumper. “Just let you win? How are you going to get better? What’s the point of playing?”

He was, of course, correct. I didn’t win that game, or the next several, but at that moment I learned that continuing in the face of adversity served a purpose. And that was enough. The lesson of that day has stuck with me twenty-five years later, and I think of it when mired down in a difficult task where things seem to be going so easily for everyone else.

*     *     *

The paradox of defeat is that it isn’t about the game at hand.

It isn’t about the defeat itself.

It’s about you.

Look, us parents love our kids. We take delight in their joy and feel the pains that they do as if they were happening to us. But life is full of pain, and it is better for us to teach this to our kids, with our hearts full of love, so that they are equipped to deal with a world that doesn’t care.

May this generation of mothers and fathers teach our children these lessons early so that they may avoid the Millennial curse.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and Gab.ai @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here.


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