Friday evening found us gathered around our kitchen table for a rousing game of competitive Chinese Checkers. Before that, we played an invigorating game of competitive Scrabble. We ended the evening with a cutthroat game of competitive Memory.

You might have noticed a common theme here. At our house, we take our games seriously. We gloat if we win and we frown and mumble bad words if we lose. That doesn’t mean that we are mean or that we hurt people’s feelings or that we throw tantrums or storm about if things don’t go our way (usually). What it means is that we like to win and play every game with that goal in mind.

Many disagree with the encouragement of competitive play. I remember a playgroup not that long ago where the other moms were somewhat horrified to learn that I didn’t let my preschoolers win every game of Candyland and Chutes & Ladders. I never “let” my kids win anything and they have always known that. If they win, it is because they earned the win. What I have tried to do is to teach my kids that winning is fun and a goal worth striving for, and that there is no shame in losing if you played your best game.

I will never understand the whole “let’s be fair to everyone” theory. In the town we used to live in, the brilliant minds at the local high school decided that the traditional cheerleader tryouts were simply not fair. Customarily, only the girls who performed best at the tryouts made the team. Many felt that such a selection process was unfair to those girls who really wanted to be on the team but simply weren’t very good at cheering.

After much debate, it was determined that any girl who had the wherewithal to attend the cheerleading tryouts would automatically be on the team. As you might imagine, this plan resulted in a ridiculous number of cheerleaders, most of whom had seriously substandard cheering ability! Then came a whole host of problems – like how to provide uniforms for all those girls and how to manage such a huge cheering squad at the games.

Another debate soon arose in that “fairness to all” school district and that was the grading system. If a kid works hard but simply can’t perform the work, is it really fair that he should get a bad grade? The school district said no. A bad grade would do nothing but crush that kid’s spirit. So let’s just give out good grades to everyone! And that is exactly what they did.

The problem with this fairness theory should be obvious. Life isn’t fair. And if our goal is to prepare our children to be upstanding adult citizens, then we might as well do away with the fairness notion right now. Some people are smart and others not so much. Some people can sing and others can’t hum a note. Some people can cheer and others are clumsy and uncoordinated. That’s just the way it is.

On the same note, let’s not mislead our children and tell them they can be whatever it is they want to be. The truth is, they can’t. It’s not going to happen. I am never going to be a world-famous, elite athlete. It just isn’t in the cards for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t love to work-out and train and compete. It doesn’t mean that I can’t always be striving to do better and more with the ability I do have. It means that just because I get a notion to do something, however unrealistic it might be, doesn’t mean I have the ability to do it.

It sounds like I’m in the business of crushing kids’ spirits, deflating their hopes and dreams at every turn. Not so!
What I want is for my children to recognize and develop their own special talents, to work hard and to always put forth their best effort. Nothing is going to be handed to them on a platter and that’s okay because no one is entitled to that. I also tell them that if the game is worth playing, then it’s worth playing to win. That’s not to say you have to win every game you play. You won’t and you shouldn’t expect to. But knowing that shouldn’t result in lowered expectations or effort. Winning can still be the goal.

It’s also important for them to realize that winning isn’t always beating out everyone else. Winning has to do with performing your personal best. In running, winning is not necessarily coming in first in the race (though I would guess that would be pretty great), it’s beating your “PR” (personal record).

My kids will have successes in life, but they’ll also have disappointments. What I wish for them is a healthy competitive spirit and the goal of always striving to achieve their personal best. It is the lackadaisical, entitled, “who really cares” attitude that I find most unappealing — the people who float through life by doing the bare minimum; the ones who perform a job for the sole purpose of collecting the paycheck.

Someone asked me once, given my competitive, type A personality, how I would handle having a child that didn’t do very well in school. I thought about that and finally answered that it would depend. If my child got a “C” because he didn’t bother to study or complete the required assignments, I would be irate. But if that “C” was a hard-earned “C” then I would be fine with it. I can accept limited talent and ability. I cannot accept laziness and lack of ambition.

The kids think we play games like Scrabble, Chinese Checkers and Connect Four for fun. We do. But I also have the ulterior motive of teaching them life lessons about competition and working hard and accepting loss and celebrating victory. Lessons they will hopefully carry with them into adulthood.

Plus, truth be told, I really do like to win at board games. On occasion, I’ve even been accused of gloating.