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Why I never let my kid win games. By Alyssa Giacobbe for Babble.com's "Bad Parent" column.

Bad Parent: Tough Luck, Kid

Why I never let my four-year-old win at games. by Alyssa Giacobbe

April 16, 2009

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We’ve just wrapped up a riveting game of Memory, in which all the cards feature toddler versions of superheroes like Spiderman, Captain America, and the one Noah, my four-year-old opponent, calls the Hunk when Noah stands and turns to his dad, busy reading the newspaper, and announces “Daddy, I won!”

“Er, no you didn’t,” I protest from my spot on the floor. Over on the couch, Bob shakes his head without looking up. I ignore this.

“Yes!” Noah repeats. “I did. I won!”

I call him back and point to my stack of cards. “You know how to count,” I say. “Though, actually, you don’t even need to. Look at how much bigger my pile is than yours.” He collapses down onto all fours and fingers the cardboard squares before mashing the lot together so that mine become his, and vice versa. “You’re getting closer, though,” I say. “I bet when we play again, you’ll beat me for sure.” Except he won’t. I win every time. As Bob is sure to tell me, it’s not hard to win at a mind game when your competition, on occasion, still pees next to, rather than into, the toilet.

To be clear, I’m not exactly the parent. Noah is my boyfriend’s son. But because Bob and I have been dating for nearly three years and live together – and I spend as much time with Noah as he does, which is nearly half the month – I am more than just “Daddy’s special friend.” When Noah relieves himself on his father’s bathroom cabinet, he relieves himself on my bathroom cabinet, too.

As Noah and I have discussed, I am not his mother. I don’t try to be. I don’t discipline him unless he’s harassing my cat or acting particularly mean (like the various times he’s cheered after learning I was not, in fact, coming sledding, or to the movies, or for a drive. This never seems to get old). And while I will let Noah take the prize in what I know he must view as the contest for his father’s attention, I will not forfeit, for forfeit’s sake, first place in Candyland, Wii Ski, or Memory.

My firm stance on winning and losing is the closest I come to imposing values of any sort on this child who is not my own. Bob hasn’t yet bought in, skeptical of what he calls my shameless competitive nature and minimal innate parental wisdom. (“Look who’s acting like a four-year-old now,” he says, whenever I deprive his son of the belief that, at last, he’s emerged victorious from a game of Mario Cart. “No,” I tell him. “You actually came in twelfth.”) For his part, Bob practices a moderate halfsies approach to game-playing: Noah is guaranteed a win at least half the time.

Bad Parent: Tough Luck, Kid

Why I never let my four-year-old win at games. by Alyssa Giacobbe

April 16, 2009

But it’s not like I take my position cavalierly, or solely as a chance to clear the smug little grin from Noah’s face whenever he tries to put me in my place by declaring victory, actual or not. I think competition is important. Throwing the game in the kid’s favor is not a healthy way for him to learn about relating and playing well with others, and I’m not just talking about with me. As a child of divorce, Noah has suffered, sure. And with me in the picture, he’s getting less attention from his father than he’d get if I weren’t. But, I’d argue, indulging him in constant positivity now will hurt him even more in the long run. Already, Noah is a kid who gets his way more often than not, and I understand why his divorced parents might each be inclined to overcompensate.

That’s where I come in.

Growing up, I remember playing heated games of cards in my grandparents’ kitchen. My car dealer grandfather, the consummate salesman, wasn’t the sort to let a little pigtailed six-year-old get in the way of a win. “Dad,” my mother used to scold.

“Giacobbes play for blood!” he’d spit back, then wink, and we’d start up again – me, more determined than ever to beat my grandfather’s ass at Uno, like the little Italian warrior I was – or, at least, wanted to be. Victory earned, I came to figure, is far better and longer-lasting than victory handed over; a little edge never hurt anyone; hard work pays off, etc. I know that, on some level at least, Noah’s getting this. After all, no matter how many times he loses, he always comes back for another game.

If I’ve learned one thing from living with a toddler it’s that they’re smarter than they let on. I realize that I could be reinforcing Noah’s perception of me as the competition; by never letting him win, I’m always the one to beat. And while I certainly don’t want to set myself up as the evil stepmonster, I’m also reluctant to have Noah view me as some kiss-ass lady who’s playing nice in order to get cozy with his daddy. If I’ve learned one thing from living with a toddler it’s that they’re smarter than they let on. They know when you’ve thrown them the win, just as they can sense when you want them to like you. Neither does anything for their sense of self or their respect for the adult (especially if that respect is already tenuous).

When Noah wins on his own, however – and sometimes he does – it’s that much better. We celebrate. We high five. I encourage him to tell his father how severely he beat me. “I beat Alyssa, Daddy, I beat her!” he’ll say, doing that four-year-old dance of his, and for a moment I’ll be sad for this little boy who so desperately wants to show up the better in his father’s eyes. Of course, he always will. I know that, even if he doesn’t. And that’s a victory I’ll always let him have.

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