When winning is easy for your child
Some kids are simply awesome. At everything. They score at the top of the class without studying. They win the swimming races, the athletic races, the cross country, the spelling bee … gosh, they even win the Easter raffle at school!
Winning, it seems, comes easily for some children – particularly when they’re young but also, in some cases, as they get older.
This doesn’t sound like a problem but in some cases it can be. Here’s an example of why:
You’re so smart!
Some years ago I conducted an experiment at the University of QLD involving around 100 ‘winners’. These were high achieving students who had gained entry into a competitive university degree. They entered my research lab, one at a time, and participated in a puzzle-completion task. The puzzles were divided into three groups of 10 puzzles.
At the completion of the first set of 10 puzzles (which were really easy ones), I randomly praised 50 percent of the participants, saying, “Wow, you got 10 out of 10. You are really smart.” The other 50 percent of participants were given neutral feedback, along the lines of, “You got 10 out of 10″.
After the first set of puzzles (where 50 percent were praised and 50 percent were not), the participants went on to a second set of 10 puzzles – exceptionally hard – where they all failed terribly. Most participants only got a score of one or two out of 10. I gave them all their feedback in neutral terms: “You got two out of 10.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. After their failure experience, I asked each participant to choose between a set of puzzles like the first set, or a set of puzzles like the second set. The results were astonishing. Participants who were told that they were smart, and who received praise for their ability, were significantly more likely to choose to do a final set of 10 easy puzzles. Those who were not praised chose a new set of hard ones for their final set.
The people in my study were the kinds of people who usually find winning to be easy. But setbacks in life are inevitable, even for the cream of the crop. It seems that the praise that goes along with winning can have a harmful impact on the choices that winners subsequently make. Our winners made the kinds of choices we would expect of losers, perhaps because they did not like the losing that came following praise for being awesome. They wanted to prove that they were, in fact, awesome – and they felt that the best way to do that was to choose easy puzzles again, to get a high score. To me, that’s a dumb decision.
If it’s not hard it’s not worth doing
Here’s another story to describe why there is a second reason that winning easily could be a concern. A famous author (whose name escapes me) shared the following in an interview (and I’m paraphrasing):
“I was recently asked to write something for a friend. I wrote it and it was very good. It took me no time at all – perhaps an hour – and I found it very easy. But when I sent it, I found that there was really no satisfaction for me in having done what I had done. And that’s when it hit me: if it isn’t hard we don’t feel satisfaction. We don’t appreciate it.”
When winning is easy
Let’s face it – winning feels good. It feels good for our children when they do it. And it feels great for us, too. We feel proud of our kids and successful as parents. (Of course it doesn’t usually feel so good for the defeated but that’s a blog post for another day.)
When winning is easy, however, our children can struggle with a few issues:
- Feelings of superiority, narcissism and exceptionalism
- Feelings of fear – what if I fail next time?
- Lower, rather than higher, resilience, particularly after setbacks
- Feelings of dissatisfaction
So what can we do as parents?
- Research from Stanford University shows that when our kids succeed with minimal effort, we shouldn’t praise them for being awesome but instead we should emphasise the effort aspect as most important. If they succeeded and won without effort we can tell them we know it’s nice to win, but next time we should do something that is a bit harder because ‘that seemed a bit too easy’. The focus on effort is also helpful, because we can talk to our children about the extra satisfaction that comes from winning or succeeding when things are tough.
- We might also encourage them to try new things. New things usually mean mistakes while our children develop their competence. So our children can learn to lose and fail and resiliently get back up and try again.
- When we focus more on meaning, interest and passion than we do on winning and succeeding at all costs, we will change the motivation of our children. They will be motivated by something internal, rather than just being better than all the others
If your child finds winning easy, just wait. One day it won’t be. They’ll grow out of it or once they get to the next level, they’ll realise they have to work hard to achieve rather than relying on natural effort. Either way, the lessons will be valuable and they’ll discover whether they love what they do, or they just love winning.
This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson - parenting speaker and author, and father of six daughters.