Fostering Healthy Childhood Self-Esteem -or- Why I Don’t Let My Kids Beat Me at Board Games

I won another game of Settlers of Catan® the other night. When the four of us play, it’s like I can’t lose! Actually, it’s just that I refuse to lose on purpose. Even when the game was CandyLand, I played to the best of my ability (not that there’s much skill involved in CandyLand). Am I a mean and selfish parent who doesn’t care about my children’s feelings? No.

There’s this parenting/education idea floating around that we must do everything in our power to enhance our children’s self-esteems. The reasoning behind this idea is solid: that children should know their inherent worth. The application, however, is often misplaced. Parents and educators praise kids for nothing (I call it ‘plastic praise.’), allow them to “succeed” when they do the minimum, and tiptoe around difficulties in fear of hurting a child’s feelings. As a result, children develop a heightened sense of entitlement with no foundation in real skills or achievement. Lest you think this is just my opinion, a recent Scientific American article linked artificially bloated self-esteem with narcissism.

So I don’t fight to win every board game because I’m hyper-competitive…although I am competitive, but beating a ten-year-old just isn’t that impressive. I try to win because I care more about my children’s character than about their feelings.

3 Attitudes to model when playing games with your kids

  1. Do your best. I want my children to see me try hard because much of what comes easily to me (folding a t-shirt neatly, opening a bottle of water, math homework) is difficult for them. They need to know effort is always honorable and everything doesn’t come easily to adults. They need to internalize Paul’s admonition: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23). Sound a little over-the-top to apply this Scripture to a board game? I think it’s a great place to practice, where the consequences are, well, inconsequential.
  2. Win and lose graciously. Too many professional athletes and other media personalities just don’t know how to win—or lose—well. When my children see my humble response to winning, they learn that it’s okay to be happy but not okay to “rub it in.” When they see my honorable response to losing, they learn how to congratulate someone and be happy for that person even as they experience disappointment themselves. It’s never okay to stomp away, to pout, or to act in anger. We always talk about these things after the game.
  3. Play fairly. We don’t cheat. Period. Because winning is not the most important thing about playing. I would rather loose honestly than win dishonestly. And, if my son wins because I played less-than-my-best, he has won dishonestly—as surely as if he himself cheated. Sure, a board game isn’t a big deal, but look what Jesus said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). And this one applies so clearly to parenting: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2).

3 Actions to practice when playing games with your kids

  1. Shower kids with praise whether they win or lose. We always encourage a good move, acknowledge improvements since we last played, and look for other specific praise-worthy actions within the game itself and regarding their behavior surrounding the game. This is affirmation, not the plastic praise I mentioned earlier. Then, even when they lose, they walk away confidently, knowing they are loved and safe.
  2. Emphasize the fun and togetherness. The point of playing a board game (or other family-centered activity) is to be together. We play to have fun, which tightens our family bonds. We don’t play for bragging rights or for power.
  3. Give advice throughout the game. I want our children to do as well as possible in the game (even if it means they beat me). This is Biblical; Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” We give each other advice, point out good moves, question bad moves, and generally foster a sense of collaboration despite the competition.

Both of my children are getting much better at Settlers and other games we play. I know the fateful day is coming when one of them actually wins, and his or her sense of accomplishment will go “through the roof!” We’ll probably take a picture for posterity. At that point, I’ll really have to focus on loosing honorably. It will be a good day.

I don’t let my kids beat me at board games -*Gasp!*- because I am more interested in their character than their feelings. (Click to Tweet)

What about you? What counterintuitive parenting approach has proven useful to you? Please! Share below.