How to Be a Dad

How to Be a Dad

My Son Is a Loser

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We sit bobbing in the pool like pale apples waiting to be plucked. My son is crying into his flotation device and I am expectantly staring at him. This is not going as well as I’d hoped.

“This game is boring and dumb. I hate it.”


He’s over it. I’m treading water, literally and figuratively, as I try to respond to his statement. He just sits there sulking. We’re facing an inflatable hoop in the center of the water and a couple of plastic balls float by when I finally muster up a few words, “Do you want to learn how to win?”

Finn is in this very charismatic stage of needing to win at all costs. If someone beats him in a game, it’s either tears or teardown. The winning thing seems to be a harmonic of sharing issues, too. I’ve noticed poor sharers and sore losers tend to be one and the same, but he’s working on the sharing aspect. Games just aren’t much fun when he gets into this frame of mind.

“Do you want to learn how to win, Finn?” I say it again as earnestly as I can. I want him to win, I really do, and while I don’t know what I’m going to say when he says “yes” I certainly want to help him learn. This, right here, is the crux of all parenting: teaching children to do something we may or may not have any idea how to do. We are chipping away at bad habits with love and guidance. We are fighting our own demons to free our kids from theirs, present and future. It’s a treasure hunt with no map in the middle of the night, sometimes.

“Yes, I wanna win. I don’t like to lose,” he says sheepishly. We look at each for a moment recognizing the strength it took for his confession.

super-dadThe look of a winner-dad.

“Then you need to learn how to lose, buddy.”

He looks at me like I’ve just told him that I gave away all of his Lego sets. “Finn, losing can teach you how to win. And when you lose like this, you aren’t learning and the game isn’t fun anymore.”

I don’t want to bombard him with crazy theoretical concepts, but my son needs to know that there’s value in losing so it doesn’t seem totally worthless. I hate losing, myself. I’m INTENSELY competitive about trivial things. Instead of telling him “it’s okay to lose” (which I know some people reading this would go ape shit over) and conceding completely, I feel like this might be a good road to go down. But Finn rejects the idea, which in itself shows he’s at least listening to me.

“But I hate to lose.”


I know he does. I do, too. Something about the perfectionism in our culture’s desire to exceptional has never sat well with me. I want to do great things but I hate failing. I grew up with teachers who told me I was failing them. I was also told, by my instructors, I had the handwriting of a serial killer and I should work with my hands, so that should shed some light on things.

“I don’t like losing either, Finney. But to win you might have to work very hard. And I will always help you as much as I possibly can because I want you to learn and win. Even when you lose.”

He picks up the ball and throws it toward the hoop. It’s a complete miss. But it’s okay because we’re both losers just trying to learn how to win, and no one is keeping score.


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19 Responses to “My Son Is a Loser”

  1. Jacob Pan says:

    Long time reader, first time poster.

    Charlie, this right here:
    “Then you need to learn how to lose, buddy.”
    is gold. Piercingly succinct gold! Thank you.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Justin says:

    Great post on a very important topic. It brings to mind a statement I read on a dad blog that my family has adopted. Heck, maybe it was yours and I’m throwing your own wisdom back at you.

    “Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn.”

  3. Robert says:

    I wish everyone in the world would read this Charlie… I was just telling a co-worker yesterday that I can’t take the chance of enrolling my kid into a sports league if everyone’s a winner and everyone gets a trophy.

    Hopefully Finn lets this one marinade for a while.


  4. Manon Alexe says:

    My 5yr old daughter is also a sore loser and a perfectionist to top it off. I keep telling her that losing, failing and other horrible stuff is perfectly ok. You can’t learn if you don’t fail.
    She speaks english as her first language and goes to an Afrikaans school. The first 2 months of school she refused to speak Afrikaans (even though she can). So when I asked her why she wouldn’t do it, she asked me if her pronounciation sounded normal. I told her there is no such thing as normal and that her pronounciation was better than mine, and that it didn’t keep me from trying. She has since started speaking more afrikaans at school.
    I think its very important we teach our kids that losing is not a bad thing and that we can actually learn from it.
    Awesome piece, as always!

  5. Priscilla says:

    This is excellent!!! If you teach your son this now, he will be a great man!!!! So many people aren’t winners because they don’t know what to do with their losses. Excellent!!! Good for you!!!

  6. Kimberly says:

    I applaud not only your parenting moment, but also your sharing of the moment. My daughter was given a trophy at the end of every ballet year – whether she deserved it or not. That’s not “winning” and won’t help her learn to “lose” gracefully either. You need to make mistakes to learn – and have it stick. Thank you for your post.

  7. Nick says:

    Well said, Charlie… I’ve had to use these two…

    “Success is not a reached by a direct path. Failure is often the first step toward success.”

    or, with apologies to Batman,

    “Why do we fall down? To learn how to get up again.”

  8. Hillary says:

    I have struggled with this as well. I asked a friend who is a psychologist for his opinion. What I was told made so much sense. Studies are proving that the “everyone’s a winner” theory is actually raising adults that quit when things get hard. He suggested that instead of focusing on the end result to focus on the effort the child puts in to learn something
    Saying something like “That’s a very good try and I can see how hard you ate working.And that makes me happy.” puts more emphasis on the process than the result. Let’s face it not everything we do is great wonderful and fantastic, so why do we tell our kids that? It just sets them up for failure they don’t know how to handler.

  9. JimMacQ says:

    This is something I’ve noted over the years that I’ve been coaching, and you nailed it; there is an expectation of perfectionism in our culture, especially for boys. We’re taught without even realizing it that everything is like chainsaw juggling — if you don’t nail it the first time, you’re dead. “I meant to do that” and “I know I know I know” are the default settings, because admitting to failure is weakness, and admitting you don’t know something is worse than failure.

    Paradoxically, this attitude generally makes one unteachable. In order to improve, one has to accept, analyze and learn from one’s failures, as you’re teaching your son. All of my best students have been the ones who start out by saying “I have no idea what I’m doing” or “I’ve never done this before,” because they are open to the possibility of failing. They listen, learn and try harder than the ones who come in thinking they already know how to do it.

    Finn will be a winner because he’ll know how to lose and what to do with a loss. Let me know when you’re ready to start archery class.

  10. Glad you’re instilling such an important life lesson early on. In a climate in which we inexplicably give out trophies to every kid so “everyone wins”, it’s refreshing to see parents provide a realistic perspective. Learning How to Be a Dad also means learning how to lose too.

  11. Amy says:

    I had to have a conversation like this with my 7 yr old son. Who also doesn’t like to lose. He was playing basketball where there would be 4 teams and they would all get taught some skills first and then scrimmage afterwards. During the skills they decided to have the kids play knockout.(I personally didn’t thing this really helped the kids learn to shoot better) One round he got to like the last 2 or 3 but lost. He went over to a corner and didn’t want to play again. He told me that he never wins. I told him that he did very well and that everybody loses. And to win you have to keep practicing and playing and keep trying. I think him hearing that everybody loses actually helped. He had never thought of it that way. But really everybody loses and to win you have to keep trying.

  12. Eric says:

    Love it! I wrote a similar post a few weeks ago. I think this is an important lesson to teach kids!

  13. Ryan Chin says:

    Nice one. We say these things and it helps remind ourselves how to live without getting too frustrated. He might not get it until he’s into his teens but he’ll get it. Some of the anecdotes my dad used to feed me didn’t hit home until I was in college.

  14. neal says:

    Great stuff here. I’ve had something similar bumping around in my head for some time now. I have a family member who is obsessed with how advanced and smart and amazing his daughters are, and with every interaction he communicates to them that they are and should be amazing and the best at everything they do. When they fail at something, it demoralizes them, and his disappointment is palpable and painful.

    I want my daughter to fail frequently, and confidently. To realize that she’s NOT the best, but that hard work and picking yourself up when you fall down is way more important than being the best or always winning. ‘Cause the only person who’s always “winning” is one of the saddest people on earth, tiger blood notwithstanding. As far as I’m concerned, true success is made out of a string of failures that you learn from.

  15. Karina says:

    Great post! I am a very competitive mom, and my kids have learn that in order to win they have to work hard! Thanks for sharing!!

  16. Joanna says:

    It’s a lesson we all have to learn. Yes, losing sucks but you can’t win everything all the time. We have to learn to be good winners and good losers…great job with this one!

  17. David Wood says:

    I came wrestling state runner up my junior year of high school, a 5A match that was televised and 20,000 people present watching me lose, by one point, in overtime. I cried so hard, as did my opponent, who was now a first time state champion. But nothing felt worse than being the first loser, until my dad, who was a national champion in college, hugged me, sobbing, and told me he would not have come as close to beating that young man as I had.

    Your connection with your son is beautiful, he will know he is a winner because you say he is. There is no better reward.

  18. Robert Younker says:

    I’ve always said that if we never lost, we would never realize just how sweet it is to win.
    I’m certainly not one of those “everyone’s a winner” types, and I can honestly say that I have never played a game that I didn’t try my damnedest to win, but losing when you have done your best, whether by bad bounce or better opponent shouldn’t crush you any more than winning should inflate you to enormous proportions.
    At the end of the day, it really is about how you play the game. With respect for the game and your opponents, and by giving it your all.

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