Here’s One More Reason Why You Shouldn’t Just Let Kids Win at Things

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Photo: Douglas Miller/Getty Images

If you’ve ever been suckered into playing one of those never-ending board games against a little kid — like Monopoly or Battleship — you’ve likely faced this dilemma: On the one hand, you could play the game the way it’s meant to be played and help the kid learn some valuable lessons about effort or sportsmanship, or whatever. On the other hand, you could just speed this thing up and let them win. Yeah, they lose out on the lessons, and fine, it sets a bad precedent, but also these games can last forever and you’re only human.

As tempting as it is, though, Option B comes with some unsavory consequences: New research shows that letting kids win can mess with their decision-making skills over the long term, stunting their abilities to use all the tools at their disposal to make the best choice.

In a new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, psychologists recruited a group of 4- and 5-year olds to play a modified version of a scavenger hunt: The participants watched a video in which an adult displayed an object and a few containers, hid the object in one of them, and then asked the children to find it. At that point, the researchers stopped the video and offered the kids a clue about the object’s location, sometimes giving real advice and sometimes intentionally misleading them.

Another caveat: Half the kids played a rigged version of the game where no matter which container they pointed to, the object was always hidden inside. In later rounds, when the kids were allowed to choose which helper they wanted — the one who’d given good advice, or the one who’d led them in the wrong direction — the kids in the rigged experiment showed no preference. The kids who stood a chance at losing the game, on the other hand, consistently picked the person who’d proven themselves to be helpful, suggesting that a guaranteed win cuts down on the motivation to think critically about the situation at hand.

“In the real world, when children experience a great deal of success on a task — mom or dad always letting them win at a game, for example — they may become less aware of important information that they could use to learn about the world, because they see it as less relevant to their future success,” lead author Carrie Palmquist, a psychology professor at Amherst, said in the study press release. For the sake of the tiny competitor sitting across from you, it’s probably best to suck it up, build those Monopoly hotels, and kiss a few more hours good-bye.