When We Try to Turn Kids Into Winners, We All Lose

by Melissa Kirsch
Originally Published: 

Childhood is marked by so many indignities: bowl haircuts, bedtimes, car windows you need permission to operate, an ongoing dependence on others to wipe your nose and your ass. Of course, some would argue that these tiny humiliations are necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child. Fine, I will grant you your helicoptering “a seven-year-old is simply not equipped to operate a motor vehicle,” if you will allow that there are certain traditions we inflict on children that really are just unfair and in no way benefit them, and that one of these is the terrible card game War.

Why it’s the worst

You remember War. It’s that boring, strategy-free game wherein the deck is split in half between two players. Each player flips over one card at a time and the person with the higher card takes both. The “fun” continues until one person has taken the entire pack and is thus declared the winner. This can take several hours. The only deviation occurs in the scintillating case that both players turn over a card of the same value—this is the eponymous “war”— in which case they turn over two more cards and whoever has the higher of the new cards takes all four.


Even as a child who could be tricked into things (like believing that all the kids in the neighborhood were my friends just because we happened to live on the same street), I knew War was terrible. It required none of the skill that Go Fish or even Uno required, and taught you nothing once you grasped that some numbers were higher than other numbers, which any kid worth her allowance already knew anyway.

War: What is it good for?

The real crime of War was in teaching kids that winning is a valid pursuit unto itself. That smarts and strategy do not matter, nor are they necessary in order to achieve the goal—the goal of being the winner. I rightly never felt any pride in winning a game of War, just as no one should ever feel proud at winning Bingo or scratch-off lottery tickets, but at least in those games there is generally a cash prize in the offing.

The only prize for winning War was dubious bragging rights. You may have done absolutely nothing to secure your win, you may be no more deserving than your opponent, but at least you had won! And who was even going to remember your opponent’s name at the end of the day—as Churchill famously said of one particularly arduous game in which he, quite luckily for him, ended up with most of the face cards, “History is written by the victors.”

It’s not just War that’s the problem

I don’t have children (you’re welcome, America), so I’m speaking as someone who was once a child, and not as a parent. I was recently distressed to hear from my sister that her tweenage daughter lies awake, as I did, the night before she has to run The Mile, the crowning jewel in the misguided feats of strength competition that was once called the President’s Physical Fitness Test and is now, in a sensitive rebranding for all those who are triggered by tests, “The President’s Challenge.”

© Emma Wilkinson

The problem with The Mile, as with all parts of “The Challenge,” (save the skinfold/BMI test, which is another conversation entirely) is not that children’s physical fitness is being examined. It’s the way in which the test was and is used to determine who is a winner and who is not. The fastest runners at my school were given medals; they were anointed by gym teachers as if they’d mapped a genome. This translated to a strict caste system that was reinforced with each year’s fitness test: The fast runners were popular and adored, the slow ones abject and pitiable.

We don’t have to turn kids into a-holes

I am not suggesting that children be protected from the pain of losing at all costs and that everyone should get a trophy just for participating. But it did take me and many other former slowpokes I’ve encountered many years to overcome the trauma of The Mile. For way too long after I’d graduated high school and become a college student whose idea of fitness was subsisting on gummy candies and Diet Coke, I held on to the idea that if I wasn’t fast, if I didn’t have a chance of coming in at the front of the pack, running wasn’t for me.

A simplistic focus on who wins and other reductive barometers of greatness is only useful if you want to turn your kids into warlords and bookies.


I am not here to malign gym teachers* or make any grand declarations about parenting, but I do think that there are far more important lessons for kids to take away from sports than “winning is everything.” Lessons that will help them enjoy simply moving their bodies and make them far more likely to continue to exercise into adulthood—which is, from what I can tell, one of the goals of the President’s Challenge and phys. ed. classes in general. A simplistic focus on who wins and other reductive barometers of greatness is only useful if you want to turn your kids into warlords and bookies.

I am definitely here to malign War, which is a very bad game that no one should subject their kids to. May I be so bold as to recommend you teach them to play bridge? That is a game so complicated that absolutely no kid (or adult?) will ever get it, so you don’t have to worry about too much emphasis on winning, since you will never finish a game. But at the very least, you’ll have the opportunity to talk with your kids about stuff like process, skill, trial and error and all the other tiny nuances of the journey that are so much more crucial to a life than the ultimate declaration of victory or defeat.

* In tenth grade I was asked by the school newspaper what I’d change about our high school and I said, “Sophomore swimming! It’s such a waste!” I was then kept after class by a phalanx of gym teachers afraid of budget cuts and told my blithe comment may have cost them their salaries. I went back to the locker room crying. I have not had good experiences with gym teachers.

Photo: Frans Persoon/flickr

This article was originally published on