Playing With The Kids:  How Badly Do I Want To Win?

In any family, playing with the kids is something that generally goes to the father.  But do I ever let them win and if not, how competitive should I be?

Playing games is actually important for kids’ growth and development.  What are the rules and how do you follow them?  What happens when you don’t follow the rules?  Can I really do this and win?  Hey, I really can do this!  Now what else can I do?  That is all part and parcel of exploration and maturing and it’s part of my job as a father.  That fact that it’s fun is simply icing on the cake.

I’ve had a few guidelines on what and how I play with the kids.  First, make sure that it’s an activity which provides them the opportunity to win if they play well.  For the smallest children, games of chance – Candyland was a favorite – gives the child an even chance to win even though he doesn’t understand that there’s no real game skill involved.  Second, if Junior wants to play something that requires skill – think basketball – then avoid actually playing for points and just work on the shooting and the other stuff.  Third, never throw a game so that Junior can actually feel some pride for having won on his own effort and talent.  While it sounds immensely old-fashioned, knowing both that you can lose and how to lose really is character-building.

But with the kids getting bigger and older, am I ever in a situation in which I purposefully turn up the heat to the point of embarrassing them?  That’s the question I have now, especially in regards to one of the kids who made it a point of trash-talking me while kicking the soccer ball around.  I’ve had a chronic leg problem for many years and it has affected my ability to physically play with the kids.  When I took Eldest to her soccer practice, Youngest came along and we kicked the ball since he’s back in soccer after a baseball hiatus.  Because Youngest wants – for some unfathomable reason – to play goalie and have the ball aimed straight for his head, he took up a position and I began to shoot on him.  He did a creditable job and I began to shift the shots to either side so that he’d have to dive.  If he bobbled the ball, I’d rush in to finish the goal and force him to scramble to cover.  As he did well however, he grew cocky and began to talk smack and it was then that he shot off his mouth about my age and inability to "run with the big dogs".   That was when I ignored his age and ratcheted up the power of the kicks, but to his credit he still did a decent job and stopped almost all of them.  As I reminded him when he shot off his mouth, he had better be able to "back the smack" that he was spewing on the field and in this case, he did.

What I’m questioning now is whether to take the boy onto the basketball court to teach him some manners.  He’s routinely beaten there in games like "Horse" and "Make it, Take it" by his elder siblings and I can outshoot the lad handily. 

But as I write this, I’m deciding not to do that.  This is a kid who’s found something that he can legitimately beat the old man at and if he shoots off his mouth, it’s because he’s starting to see himself in a position to compete more equally with elder siblings and a father who don’t just let him win because he’s the youngest.  Taking him onto the court to purposefully beat him would be simply wrong of me.  My initial response on the soccer field – if you’re gonna talk smack, you’d better be able to back it – was the best course and it’ll be incumbent upon me to simply remind him of this before other games and practices.  I’m the adult, even when my own buttons are pushed.

And yes, I really didn’t know what I’d do when I sat down to write this article.  Thanks for listening.


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