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When did party games like pass-the-parcel become so damn politically correct? There is generally a consolation prize in every layer and the music-person will ensure every player gets a turn. But why? Why can’t we just let kids lose sometimes and everyone be ok with it?

Just like the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality when it comes to birthday party games, participation ribbons for every kid at the school sports carnival (so no one gets sad because they missed out) seems to be our modern-day reality. But why, just like in the good-old-days, can’t we be OK with celebrating just one winner? With having a pile of ‘losers’ instead of a pile of participation-ribbon recipients?

haven spoke with Dr Aaron Frost of Benchmark Psychology about the psychology of the win. “I think this represents a real underlying confusion that parents have about what the experts have been telling them with regards to helping children build self-esteem,” he says.

According to Dr Aaron, self-esteem can be defined as a pretty simple math formula:

Self-esteem = Expectation + Achievement.

“That is to say, if you have healthy expectations and a healthy set of achievements, you will have solid self-esteem. The problem is when achievement is low and expectations are high. Kids who are getting Cs at school and know they are working really hard for those passing grades feel pride in their achievement. Kids who are getting A grades but feel they are letting their parents down by not getting the A+ grades feel shame,” Dr Aaron says.

“The really important thing is acknowledging the effort that the child puts in rather than the result they get. It doesn’t matter how hard some kids try, they are never going to win the 100m sprint, but if they run their hardest and do better than they did last time, then we should feel proud of them and praise their hard work.

“Somewhere in the past, the idea of praising effort got mistranslated into ‘never comment on achievement, and only tell them that they did a good job’. But what if they didn’t?

“My own daughter started playing hockey a couple of years ago. The first game she played, one of her friends and she were too busy doing the robot dance with each other to notice a player from the other team run past them both and score a goal. At the end of the game should I praise her for her effort?” Dr Aaron asks.

“If at the end of the game I say ‘Well done sweetheart, I can see you tried really hard’ I am teaching two dangerous lessons. The first is that I am a liar and she cannot trust my opinion (she knows she was doing the robot and not paying attention). The second is that I am teaching her that praise comes without effort. I am unrealistically boosting her expectation that she will be praised regardless of how little she tries. Maybe that is true with me, maybe I will always see her strengths and always say kind things, but that will not be true for every teacher, friend, teammate, or boss she has in her life.

“I do her a bigger favour by speaking the truth. Not saying ‘You were rubbish and until you get your head in the game you will keep being rubbish’. But, maybe, ‘It looked like you and your friend were having a lot of fun, but it didn’t look like the dancing was helping the team. I’d love to see how well your team could do if you were both concentrating’.”

We asked Dr Aaron some quick-fire questions to some of our most pressing party-related quandaries. And his advice can be related to loads of other everyday situations…

Q – Many parents go out of their way to ensure every child wins. Is this bad for children?
A – Yes, I think deliberately rigging games to ensure they are ‘fair’ is not good for children. Having said that, it depends on the age. For a group of 5 years olds, I would try and make sure the games that are played don’t have winners and losers but that everyone gets something fun or nice out of them. For older children, I think it is fine that sometimes they win and sometimes they don’t.

Q – Is it more important to experience winning or losing?
A – Both are important. Winning is a great sensation and one that children should aspire to. But learning humility in defeat is also important. The key thing about losing is not to take the lesson to give up, but rather to take the lesson of how to improve next time.

Q – Are emotions heightened in a setting like a birthday party and should parents adjust their expectations?
A – Yes, but it’s not about being in front of their peers – it’s about the copious amounts of sugar we shovel down their throats during the birthday party. A few chocolate crackles and some birthday cake are fine, and it’s good for kids to not be denied treat food. But letting them eat and drink their body weight in marshmallows and Fanta is a far better explanation for why we see children completely inconsolably melting down when things don’t go their way at a party. Try some crackers and hummus, a few grapes, lots of watermelon and then one or two true treat foods. Also, please don’t send my daughters home with half a kilo of sugary booty!

Q – What should we say when children are struggling with losing?
A – Be honest about why they lost. If they lost because the other kid was bigger, taller and stronger, tell them that. If they lost because they didn’t understand the game, tell them that. If they lost because they weren’t trying, tell them that. It is important for us to learn what is within our control and what is beyond our control.

Q – Does everyone need to be a winner?
A – Yes, but not for actually winning. In the bigger picture, the only person we are competing with is ourself. We win every time we work hard and do better than we thought possible. That is the best lesson we can teach our children.

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haven is all about family, life and style in Brisbane's inner city suburbs, the Gold Coast, south to Byron Bay. We have been keeping parents in the know for over eight years, with fun, fresh and helpful stories that they can take tips from or treasure in their own library.