Losing at Scrabble


When my children were younger, I liked to read parenting books to learn the latest theories of psychologists and educators about raising healthy and happy kids.  Generally, I gravitated to those who promoted discipline—logical and natural consequences—over punishment, and those who believed that the acquisition of new skills and mastery of skills—rather than excessive praise—fostered self-esteem.  As a teacher and parent, I was a fan of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards.

In this recent New York Times article, Matt Richtel explored the views of experts on competition.  He quotes Kohn as citing evidence that competition is “destructive” and a “toxic way to raise children.” He also quotes President Obama as having delivered the following advice to interns: “When you all have kids, it’s important to let them win…until they’re a year old.” I was intrigued by this article because I have always played games with my children, games in which there is a winner and a loser.  Games are excellent teaching tools; they allow people to acquire skills of both the intellectual and emotional variety.

Mostly I love playing games with my children because it provides me an opportunity to revisit the games of my childhood, which I regard as a perk of parenthood. As a wordie, I prefer Scrabble and Boggle to Yahtzee and Stratego, but through the years I have willingly attempted whatever games my children desire. Of course, I always emphasized the importance of good sportsmanship and cooperation in our play.

But I never let my kids win.

When my son had not yet acquired the fine motor skills to write quickly, I modified our Boggle games to allow for a fairer fight. When he was younger, I never penalized him for his creative spelling in Scrabble.  Now, at age ten, he regularly trounces me when we play games. He has even beaten me in Hebrew Scrabble, despite my greater fluency and superior skills in that language. Whether he wins or loses, he invariably extends his hand to shake mine and says, “Good game.” I am always sure to display my “agony of defeat” with great humor.  The truth is, I am not-so-secretly delighted that my children have bested me.  Isn’t that evidence of my success as a parent?

Reading Richtel’s piece, I was reminded of my spouse’s consistent reaction to the parenting books that I encouraged him to read over the years of our raising children together.  After reading a few chapters, he would say, “This expert has never met my child.” He’s right. Parents are most successful when they are authentic. I hope that, by competing with them, I have instilled in my children the value of fair play and the joy of mastering skills through playing—and winning—games.


Comments (8)

Yes, yes and yes. Don’t get me wrong – I love cooperative games. And I agree that it is possible to be so competitive that one loses the joy of the game. But the joy of the game – that’s something pretty darned glorious. And part of that, in my book, is not “letting” our kids win. Because when the inevitable day comes when they do win (and in the case of my Scrabble games with my son, win repeatedly), I want it to be worth something. Truth be told, when those wins happen, they actually means as much to me as to them. Well, most of the time they do 😉

I just knew you’d like this one, Corey-Jan. We really are living parallel lives! Only your son is old enough to play with you on FB, too.

couldn’t agree more – letting your kids win devalues the real wins when they finally (and inevitably) occur. and, truth be told, there is oftentimes more to be learned from a loss than a win – as parents, we have an obligation to prepare our children to be good citizens of the world, and, sometimes, that means being a good and gracious loser as well as a good and gracious winner.

Thanks, Lisa! I also learn these parenting lessons from tennis when I read your blog.

Love this!!!

We don’t let our kids win. Never have. But not in a painful, in-your-face kind of way.

It is so important to teach our kids that there will be winners and losers because there is no other way for them to learn. And better to learn this lesson in the safety of loved ones.

Good luck at Scrabble this Shabbat!

Thanks, I’ll be needing that luck. Shabbat shalom!

Still have trouble believing he beats you regularly…I wonder if a more mercenary focus on maximizing the scoring squares would help 🙂

When I was a high school senior my English teacher, a Morehead Scholar at UNC, related how he, his sister, and mother combined their Scrabble scores against his Johns Hopkins Professor father and still routinely lost. His dad would pull out words obscure words like ‘zarf’, (a holder of beverages without handles, usually coffee) to triumph.

It’s true; I dare not exaggerate, as he reads my blog! I might benefit from a more mercenary focus, but I am usually pretty good about maximizing my points. We have also determined that winning at Scrabble depends almost as much on luck as on skill. When I have an assortment of “Old McDonald” vowels on my rack, I just smile and make the best of it.

Thanks for “zarf,” which will be worth quite a lot on a triple letter or triple word.

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