Friday, February 17, 2012

Do your kids a favor: Let them lose once in a while

From today's Briefing:

Katie has a first-grade friend who is interested in playing soccer, but she’s afraid to try because she’ll be too far behind.
Seriously. A 7-year-old is concerned that she’s already missed the boat on an entire sport because most of the other girls have been playing for three or four years.
I don’t blame the child. She’s instinctively protecting herself in the environment we’ve all created. A world in which 18-month-olds can begin taking soccer lessons.
There are classes for tiny humans who’ve been on Earth just a year and a half. Little people who are wearing diapers and who have an average vocabulary of 30 to 50 words and who can barely manage to scale a small staircase.
I encouraged my friend, the mom of the 7-year-old, to enroll her for a season. Just let her try. Maybe she’ll love it, score a few goals, make new friends. Maybe not. But let her discover on her own if she can compete with the tiny Alex Morgans out there.
These low-consequence risks are difficult for us parents. But if we don’t encourage small risks, the long-term consequences will be monumental.
When Cooper started kindergarten, his teacher shared that she often has students who have never lost a game of Candy Land.
These children play with parents who always rig the outcome, guaranteeing no loss and no tears at home. And guaranteeing plenty of tears when a loss naturally happens outside the home.
Most children aren’t born graceful losers or winners. I know mine weren’t. We still struggle. If Katie calculates in the middle of a game that her chances of winning are slim, she’d prefer to forfeit. (I don’t let her.) If Cooper is winning, he’s prone to trash talk. (I try to curb it.)
We’ve all been the champion of Cinderella’s Glass Slipper Game and Spot It and Sorry Sliders. We’ve all come in last place in Qwirkle and Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders.
Disappointment at home prepares us for disappointment on the field and in the classroom, among friends and in the workplace.
Over lunch last week, a few mom friends were discussing one daughter’s desire to be a cheerleader.
This sixth-grader isn’t particularly talented at tumbling. (The cartwheel still eludes her, even after plenty of lessons.) She isn’t among the girls who have cheered since age 3 or performed at Cowboys Stadium or competed at the national level.
But she does want to try to be part of the cheerleading squad and all it represents in middle school.
Mom has struggled with her daughter’s choice. Chances are slim that she’ll make the squad. Mom instinctively prefers to shield her from the potential disappointment of not making the team. She could argue that the most supportive act, the safest act, would be to discourage her daughter from tryouts altogether.
She also knows that it’s healthy for her daughter to take risks. To try, then maybe make it, maybe not.
She has decided that the most supportive act is to encourage her daughter to pursue her dream of pompons and football games. And to praise her for trying, regardless of the outcome.
Because the bigger risk is telegraphing to your child that you don’t believe in her. That we only attempt tasks if we’re certain of success. That there is no value in coming in second or third or last place. That failure is unacceptable.
I know that’s not what we really intend when we instinctively shield our children from struggles. But it’s the message they receive.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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