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Learning To Lose

One of the “hit” gifts that
Maddie and Cora got for Christmas is the board game Cariboo. This
game is billed for ages 3-6, but Cora adores playing it since she
gets to use the key and drop the balls in the tunnels, and Maddie
helps her “read” the game cards.

This is not the first board game Maddie’s played – she
loves freakin’ Candyland, and really enjoys that
hugely-annoying-to-parents game Chutes and Ladders. But those have
always been played one-on-one with an adult, and Cariboo is the
first game Maddie’s had to play with Cora. And we’ve
noticed a disturbing trend.

Maddie hates to lose.

I’m not sure if it’s that she
hates to lose to Cora, or hates to lose in general. We’re
certainly not one of those parents who always let their child win;
if Maddie races us up the stairs, she’ll win perhaps 6 or 7
times out of 10. And while I may cheat at Candyland, believe me,
it’s just to make it be over sooner, and not so that Maddie
can win. In all of these situations, she’s lost with relative
grace – she may not celebrate the loss, but isn’t upset
or prone to pitching a fit.

With Cariboo, though, Maddie dissolves in tears if she does not get
to put the final ball in the tunnel, thus opening the
“treasure chest” and being the “winner”.
Never mind that she’s found four out of the six other balls
– if it’s not the final one she’s desolate.
I’m talking seeing-Elmo-dead-in-the-road desolate.

What to do? I know society as a whole is not keen on teaching our
children to be losers, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a
soccer league that doesn’t hand out trophies just for showing
up. I think we go a little too far sheltering our kids from the
harsh realities of losing, even while I acknowledge that our
society as a whole is waaaay too competitive. Look at soccer again
– we hand our losing five-year-old a consolation trophy,
saying, “You’re a winner just for showing up!”
even as the dad is over on the sidelines screaming at the referee
for an unfair/blind/totally biased call that cost his kid the
winning point. Talk about mixed signals.

But I digress. Jerry Bridges, author of a book I’m reading
about “respectable” sins like anger and pride and
selfishness, writes that “Competitiveness (at its worst) is
basically an expression of selfishness. It’s the urge to win
at somebody else’s expense. It’s certainly not loving
our neighbor as ourselves.” And I see that illustrated
eloquently in Maddie’s feelings about the Cariboo game. She
doesn’t wish Cora any ill-will; she simply would rather have
the selfish joy of winning for herself than for her sister, and
would like her sister to disappear at the moment the final ball is

I realize I’m all over the map on this issue, and I
apologize. I think that some competition is healthy, as it spurs us
to strive harder and push ourselves to accomplish more. But we must
develop the ability to show grace in the face of defeat, even if we
can’t quite reach that state of being truly happy for the

I don’t think that Maddie is learning this bitterness at
losing from me; I’m terrible at bowling (high score of 39 if
anyone’s wondering) but I cheerfully go and bowl with my kid
and laugh at how bad I am, complimenting her when she wins (to be
fair, though, she uses bumpers and I don’t. Yet.) and
cheering loudly when she gets a strike. No, we can’t lay the
blame for this at parenting feet, at least in this household: I
think it’s a sin inherent in all of us that’s given
free reign as a child and exhibited there in its purest form.

There’s no clear path to me for this issue, so I guess
I’ll keep pressing forward with the mish-mash of parenting
decisions we’ve made. I recognize that beating Maddie fair
and square at a foot race, while giving her plenty of opportunities
to learn to be a graceful loser, will probably have the primary
side effect of making her not want to ever race with me, or try new
things where it looks as if she doesn’t have much of a
chance. So I’ll continue giving her a bit of a handicap in
the stupid Candy Forest so we can have these fun(ish) family
moments together, even while I look at a loss as a chance to talk
about some important stuff.

Try your best and lose with a glad and humble heart, is what I want
my girls to learn. That’s a tall order.

Sigh. I feel another game of Cariboo coming on.


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