My youngest grandson Lucas is a gifted athlete. I am not.
Throughout grade school and high school, Lucas was a competitive gymnast and played on his school’s soccer team. While he wasn’t a huge fan of football, basketball or baseball, whenever he engaged in a pickup game his skills were clear from the start.
Table tennis, however, was a different story.
We had purchased a used ping pong table for our unfinished basement when Lucas was about seven years old. Lucas had never played before but he was game to learn even if he barely could reach over the table. I am not a great player but I’d played occasionally as a kid and could patiently return most volleys.
After I taught Lucas the rules, we’d play often when he visited. He got better, but each time he lost. The consistent losses went on for several years, but Lucas never stopped wanting to play.
I have always been clear with my children and grandchildren that I won’t let them win at games. Sometimes I might play harder than others, but that has more to do with my level of energy. I’m not a cutthroat player at most things and I try not to be a jerk about winning. I also make sure to encourage the kids by observing how much better they are getting and to remind them of the importance of playing fairly.
But after four or more years of never losing a ping-pong game to Lucas, I began to wonder if it was wrong not to let him win just to boost his confidence. Sure, we’d start over after I was up 13 points to nothing. Or I’d give him an occasional do-over when he’d mistakenly hit the ball with his hand rather than the paddle, but I never let him win.
Like most kids, Lucas doesn’t like to lose. But he never gave up and never lost interest in playing in spite of years of losing.
Sometime after Lucas turned 13, he won his first game of ping pong against me. The next time, he won two games. Each time we played after that he’d win more and more games. He’s still never shut me out in a game, but it’s become a struggle for me to win at least one game over the course of a weekend.
I am not a child psychologist. I don’t know if experts in child development will tell you that letting a child occasionally win at a game even when they lose is somehow good for the child. But I can tell you that even today, being honest with Lucas about how I wasn’t going to let him win still feels like the right thing to have done. It was and remains a chance to model honesty.
Lucas was thrilled when he won his first game of ping pong against me partly because he knew he had worked hard and really won. He learned the importance of patience and persistence.
Lucas just turned 20. Last weekend, I took the first game of ping pong and he won the next two.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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