Friday, January 15, 2010

Winners and Losers

We play a lot of games in our house. A typical winter afternoon will find Cowgirl and I hunched over the living room table playing Chutes and Ladders, then Trouble, and then Gobbler. Candy Land is another old time favorite with Cowgirl while I prefer the challenge of Blokus.

As a child I hated to lose. I used to believe I inherited this trait from my father who once knocked over a chess board when I put his king into checkmate. Aware of my tendency to be a bad winner (yes, I have been known to gloat and boast) I have been very mindful of my behavior when playing games with Cowgirl. So I am slightly surprised by her behavior at losing. She either sulks, gets grumpy, refuses to play any more or collapses into tears, moans and groans.

Now we've talked about not giving up, how the game isn't over until it's over (the only wisdom I can glean from Chutes and Ladders), how we get better when we keep trying, and the biggie: how something is worthwhile when we've had to really work for it. I try to be philosophical: "If I let you win all the time, then would winning really mean anything?" I try to be practical: "If you act this way with your friends, then they won't want to play anymore." When I win, I always tell her "good game! You played well!" which never softens the blow. And I try to point out, in many cases, it just is a matter of luck and has nothing to do with skill or how you play.

To some degree, Cowgirl is better about losing when she plays with me. This is not the case when she plays with her father or her cousins. What baffles me is how quickly she latched onto the notion of losers/winners and the leap from losing a game to the notion of being a loser?

I wonder if this is just part of human nature or is it a product of our competitive culture? In either case, I do not help her by letting her win. As frustrating, annoying and heartbreaking as it is, I cannot just let her win. Oh, I've overlooked some strategic moves and you know what? The universe throws the opportunity back at me again and again until it is obvious to Cowgirl that I am making some pretty dumb choices.

So I persist in playing games and hoping that I am slowly nudging her towards the realization that while Life may often seem to be about winning and losing, in the end each game, each moment is just that - an opportunity taken or not taken, but hopefully learned from as we move on to the next challenge. We all lose at something at various times in our lives, so best now to try and derail this notion that failing = I am a failure, or losing = I am loser. Because the real danger resides in becoming fearful of trying, growing, or expanding as to do so carries a potential risk of failure. But if we resist living up to our potential, isn't that the ultimate failure?

I know, I know, the word itself carries such heavy baggage. But it is out there being used on the playground and in the lunch room and classroom, never mind the dark recesses of our psyches (I carry to this day the humiliation of being a kickball loser in second grade; it didn't help to have the gym teacher yell at me as well.) What I hope I can teach Cowgirl - and myself for that matter - is that who we are is not summed up by a label, but by what we carry in our hearts. It is our motivations that matter, the outcome generally being beyond our control. To play the game well, to know we acted from our understanding of Truth and Goodness - that is all we really can control.

But be warned: I do play to win.


  1. This post REALLY resonates with me!

    I once cursed out my sister when we were playing Monopoly because I had Park Place and she landed on Boardwalk and bought it, and obviously didn't want to trade or sell it to me.

    I am an Aries, so I have a very competitive nature. I don't WANT to be a sore loser, but when I don't win my body reacts by getting tense, my blood races, the tears come... a lot of fight or flight instincts, actually. Especially when I (the girl with a degree in English Lit AND a Master's degree from library school) lose in Scrabble to my husband (whose typing skills sometimes take a lot of scrutinizing to figure out, yet that is his favorite game).

    He feels bad when he sees my reaction and offers to *let* me win in the future, and then I get even more mad. That's cheating. I don't want to win because someone cheated, I want to win because I played the best.

    I've tried to get better over time. I tell him, "I am not upset that you won, I'm very happy for you. I'm just sad that I lost." I don't know if it makes sense to him, but he does know when enough is enough and I just can't play another game of Scrabble, so we switch to something else. Since I know how bad I get, if I'm already in a cross mood I will sometimes say, "I'll play Scrabble with you, but only if we don't keep score." Or I'll say, "We can play this, but I get to choose the next game." And then I choose something more about luck, like The Game of Life.

    I'm very hopeful that in time I can learn to lose graciously, but I have a very steep learning curve. Even if it may not see it, continue on your course. Don't let her win to appease her. She needs to learn, as I do, that it's better to win because she deserves it, and that it's only fair that others get the chance to win sometimes too, and that it's important to learn to be happy for them.

    But I still won't play Monopoly.

  2. Yet again I think, if only we lived closer. I'm not sure Ava even understands what it means to lose or win. When we play Candyland she wants to make up stories about the creatures on the gameboard and she wants our game pieces to be friends and travel together on the board to the fantasy lands. I wish Cowgirl could pull her into reality a bit and Ava could show her how much fun the journey can be. At the end of each game, our game pieces always have a little party at the end where they gobble up all the candy.
    I can imagine the look of annoyance on Cowgirl's face at the thought of that. Ah, I marvel at the differences in their personalities.
    Have I mentioned lately how much I love reading your blogposts and seeing your pictures? Keep 'em coming :)

  3. Learning the skill of playing a game to win, while you develop the art of losing with grace, is really the balance we need in life.