Should we let a child win when playing games?
Playing is fun for a young child. Winning or losing is therefore of little importance. However, as the child gets older, they get angry when they lose and then may not want to play any more. How can you help? Should we let them win when we play?
Types of games
Games of chance
Most of the time, the first games with a winner and a loser are games left to chance (e.g., card games such as Red or Black? and War). Players are then on equal footing, and children are as likely to win as adults.
This type of game allows your child to understand that they can lose one day and win the next. If the child loses, you can say: “You got unlucky this time. I bet you will win next time.”
Even though the defeat is related to chance, it can be difficult for your child to accept. Before starting the game, remind them that they have as much chance of winning as losing. To help them understand the concept of chance, you can play heads or tails with a coin.
Suggest different board games to your child. They may demonstrate more skills for some of them. Focus on their interests to keep them motivated to play, regardless of whether they win or lose.
Around age 4, and sometimes even before, children begin taking interest in board games, such as checkers, memory games (where you have to find identical pairs), games of dominoes, and tic-tac-toe. These games involve memory, intuition, logic, and minimum strategy. They also have specific rules that each player must follow.
These games also allow for “real life” play. The child learns to follow the rules of the game, to not cheat, to manage disappointment in case of failure, and to channel potential negative reactions.
Let them win, but not always
To learn about losing, your child first needs to win. Winning a game helps them gain self-confidence. By winning several times over you, your child will develop the assurance needed to accept losing against other children.
Gradually, your child will develop skills and succeed in winning without your help.
Before starting a game, ask your child if they want to win, or for everyone to play according to the rules of the game. Thus, you can adapt to their need for control, which can vary based on their emotional state (e.g., fatigue, defeat playing a game with friends earlier in the day). Tell them, however, that home is the only place where they can make this choice. Over time, your child will want to follow the rules of the game when playing with you.
Don’t always let the child win
If you always let your child win, you are giving them the illusion that they cannot be defeated. They will then be much more destabilized if they lose when playing against someone else.
Alternatively, if they never win, they will lose interest in the game. The ideal is to let them lose from time to time. Winning on occasion can motivate them to continue playing and helps develop their skills.
Accepting to lose to you is easier than against another child. Since you know the game and have more experience, your child finds it more normal that you win. When playing against a friend of the same age, your child is comparing themselves to an equal and may find it difficult that someone is better than they are.
Losing against you is also less difficult because you are able to win with humility, and without making fun of them. When your child loses, focus on the fun you had while playing, not the result. For example, tell them: “That was a lot of fun,” “You didn’t give up,” or “You played very strategically, well done!”
How to teach a child to be a good player
If your child reacts strongly when they lose while playing against a friend, suggest that they practise playing this game with you. Take opportunities to point out the fun they had and the skills they displayed during the game: “You played well,” “You waited for your turn,” or “It’s a lot of fun to play together.”
Playing as a team, rather than alone against an opponent, could also help your child accept losing a game. When teamed up with another player, your child is not the only one responsible for the defeat, making it easier to accept. For a victory, they are proud to have contributed to the success of their team.
If your child gets upset when losing, there are cooperative board games that require all players to help each other. These games without a winner or loser allow your child to participate without being compared to others.
Puzzles, drawings by two people, and team “storytelling” games are also games to explore to foster cooperation without a winner or a loser. You can also occasionally organize cooperative activities where everyone contributes to a common purpose, such as picking apples with the family or a treasure hunt during a walk in the forest.
For other cooperative game ideas, have a look at our fact sheet Le jeu coopératif (in French).
Teach the child to control their emotions
When your child loses, they can experience sadness or anger. They can also feel “silly” or worry that you don’t think they are good. They need your help to put their feelings into words and to provide support in managing their emotions. To help, you can tell them:
“It’s really frustrating when the game doesn’t go the way we planned…”
“It’s hard to accept losing… Are you so angry that you are shaking inside?”
“You are sad because you would have liked to win. Do you feel like you’re not good?”
Your child must learn to have fun in games with an opponent. Help the child understand that defeat is not a sign they are inferior to other players and that victory does not mean they are superior to others. The fun of the game is first and foremost in playing the game itself, not just its outcome.
Set the example
Your reaction to defeat is an important example for your child. If you are a good player, your child will imitate these behaviours when they are playing.
- Emphasize your disappointment when you lose, but also play down failure. For example, tell them: “I would have liked to win” or “I really thought I would win this game! I will continue to practise.”
- Demonstrate to your child that it is normal to make mistakes and ask for help. For example, say: “I don’t think I played well this time. What would you have done if you were me?” or “Could you help me in the next round?” This gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their skills, which reinforces their self-confidence.
- Pay attention to how failure, mistakes, and daily performance (school, work, sport, etc.) are perceived in your family. Your child reproduces whatever they hear, see, and experience most often.
No competition in everyday life
Avoid competition with your children outside of play periods.
To speed up routines, some parents say to their children: “Who will be first in pyjamas?” or “Who will finish tidying their room first?” Such a strategy adds an element of competition between children and leads to a winner and loser.
Moreover, this way of doing things may not produce the desired effect. A slower child will not necessarily speed up, because they already know they will lose. They may also feel they are not as good as their brothers or sisters.
Instead, value each of your children’s efforts. One child could be very quick to get dressed, while another offers to help set the table. Emphasize that you appreciate what everyone does to help make the routine go well and that this is teamwork, rather than making it a competition against each other.
Things to keep in mind
Winning a game helps your child learn to cope when they lose, as it boosts their self-confidence. However, don’t always let them win.
Focus on the fun you have playing with your child, rather than the outcome of the game.
Your reaction when you lose a game is an important example for your child.
Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2022
Photos: GettyImages/FG Trade and iStock.com/pixeldigits
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
FERLAND, Francine. Et si on jouait? Le jeu durant l’enfance et pour toute la vie. 2nd ed., Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, Montreal, 2005, 216 pp.
FILLIOZAT, Isabelle. « Il me cherche!: » : comprendre ce qui se passe dans son cerveau entre 6 et 11 ans. Paris, Éditions JC Lattès, 2014, 175 pp.
GAGNIER, Nadia. “Êtes-vous le parent d’un mauvais perdant?” 2017. drenadiapsychologue.com
MACNAMARA, Deborah. Jouer, grandir et s’épanouir : le rôle de l’attachement dans le développement de l’enfant. Montreal, Les Éditions au Carré, 2017, 309 pp.
MORIN, Stéphanie. “Initier les tout-petits aux jeux de société,” La Presse, December 28, 2021. www.lapresse.ca
RADIO-CANADA. Zone des parents. “Enfant mauvais perdant : 3 trucs pour devenir bon joueur.” 2020. ici.radio-canada.ca
BRIGHT, Rachel and Jim FIELD. Les écureuils se querellent. Markham, Éditions Scholastic, 2017, 32 pp.
CHISHOLM, Alastair and David ROBERTS. Moi plus fort que toi. Toulouse, Éditions Milan, 2020, 44 pp.
ESCOFFIER, Michael. Moi d’abord. Paris, Éditions Frimousse, 2010, 28 pp.
HUDSON, Katy. L’or à tout prix. Markham, Éditions Scholastic, 2020, 32 pp.
OLDLAND, Nicholas. Les amis qui ne pensaient qu’à gagner. Markham, Éditions Scholastic, 2015, 32 pp.
SCOTTON, Rob. Splat n’aime pas perdre! Paris, Éditions Nathan, 2013, 28 pp.
SOUILLÉ, Laurent et al. Azuro au tournoi des dragons. Montreal, Éditions Auzou, 2021, 32 pp.