Life Lessons Learned from Playing Games

Lesson From Playing Games

Q. Our 4-year-old daughter, Janine, loves to play games in which there are winners and losers, such as Candyland. We want her to learn that it is just a game and that it doesn’t really matter if she loses, but she dissolves in tears when we win. Should we make her deal with the fact she can’t always win?

A. Some children are very flexible about winning and losing from the preschool years forward, but many struggle with it, like Janine. To know how to best address this question, it helps to understand what games mean to children.

The hard lessons of games

Children have fun when they play games, but it is also hard work for them for several reasons, including:

Lack of control over the outcome. Although some games involve skill, all involve a heavy dose of luck. For example, when playing Candyland, Janine cannot influence or control the order of the cards. Children derive much comfort from the illusion that the world can be controlled — they hold tenaciously to the idea that Mommy and Daddy can take care of any problem. Games help introduce children to the painful reality that much of life is beyond anyone’s control. One appeal of games is that this difficult aspect of life, which adults continue to grapple with to one extent or another, can be introduced in the context of a game.

Learning to take turns. Taking turns is part of every game. Children want every turn to be theirs. It is hard work to wait for the next opportunity, wondering what lies in store. As they play, with your help, children build mental muscles by learning to tolerate their frustration about waiting.

Winning equals winner

Along with being hard work, playing is also serious work for a child. Adults may think that a game isn’t serious because it is just pretend and nothing is really won or lost. However, imagining and pretending are always serious business for a child. Game or not, winning or losing may be something Janine takes very seriously.

Preschool children often see the world in black and white divisions. There are good guys and bad guys. Good guys do good things and have good things happen to them. Bad guys do bad things and have bad things happen to them. It would make sense, then, to children that good guys are winners and bad guys are losers, which means there is much more at stake to a young child than just winning and losing.

Children believe it is safer to be a winner than a loser, and that they are better people if they are winners. It may be that Janine becomes so upset when she loses because it feels as if she is being turned into a loser and will be stuck in the bad side of the great divide. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder she would make such a fuss when she loses!

Age-appropriate reactions

Janine has much to learn about the many personality-building aspects of playing games, such as chance and control. At her age, mastering these features is the most important focus. It may be too much for her to be a good sport about winning and losing, and we would recommend that you go along with her need to win. Of course, you could do it with a wink and a smile, conveying to her that you both know that her having turned over the cards at the end until she got the one that would provide her with a win was outside the rules, but OK with you.

We recommend that you begin to expect her to tolerate occasional losses when she is 5. When she is 6 she can be expected to fully follow the rules of a game and accept the consequences. During kindergarten and first grade, children have grown in their ability to understand that a game is truly a game and should not confuse the outcome of a game with their own identity. They also are entering a time when they should be interested and invested in shared rules that exist outside themselves, moving beyond the attitude of a preschool child who treats rules as fodder for imagination and personal alteration.

Don’t worry that you will be teaching Janine that she will always win if you allow her to win all the games at this point in her life. Rather, you will be teaching her that you are sensitive to her readiness to tolerate losing. Your sensitivity will provide the connection and support to enable her to one day be the gracious winner and gracious loser that you would like her to become.

The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the emotional well-being of children and families. The question of the month may be a composite or illustration of questions families have asked. To submit a question, e-mail with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.

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