Why an “Everyone Wins” Attitude Is Making Our Children Lose

I stood, gathered around our little league kids, ready to kick off the first tee-ball game of the season. This being my first run as a sports parent, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was nervous about transitioning from practices to games because I knew my kids, ages 4 and 6, would likely pull back when they stood a chance to lose. So, we had a talk that day about how some of the games they would lose and some of the games they would win, but that they could always have fun playing the game.

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The coaches laid out the rules: three innings, no points, and “everyone wins,” they shouted triumphantly. I understood the sentiment of this approach, but something inside me pushed back. “That’s not true,” I whispered to myself. I was left wondering, “How are we serving our kids by sheltering them from failure?” The “everyone wins” attitude, I fear, is preventing our children from building the necessary resilience they need to thrive as teens and adults.

It is evident there is a major mental health crisis among American teens right now. The introduction of social media and technological devices, as well as the more recent and drastic reduction in socialization, have contributed largely to the rise in anxiety, depression, and even suicide among teens. But some of the mental health challenges we are seeing might be due to the dangerous combination of failing to prepare our kids for failure and overemphasizing winning.

We have become a culture obsessed with shielding our children from experiencing adversity, challenges, and failures. At the same time, we expect the “wins” to continue outside of the context of these “failure-proof” environments, like the tee-ball little league. But this shielding hurts more than it helps. Every child gets a trophy or a gold star, deserves an A, and plays games without points so that “everyone wins.” But this approach not only shields children from experiencing the inevitable challenges, failures, and losses that are part of being human, but it also implicitly teaches them a narrative that losing is something to be avoided.

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Focusing on how “everyone wins” not only fails to provide our children with opportunities to build resilience by losing, but we also inherently overvalue winning. Working so hard to ensure everyone wins and no one ever loses sends the message to our children that losing is bad and not for them. With this mindset, losing becomes something to be greatly avoided rather than an inevitable part of being in the game.

What’s even more confusing for children is that we switch gears from “everyone wins” to “losing is not an option” as they get older. Children, especially teens, are told, whether implicitly or explicitly, “You must make As, get into Harvard University, and be a professional soccer player.” The overemphasis on high levels of achievement among teens is just a new version of “everyone wins” in that we teach our kids that losing isn’t an option for them. For instance, teachers report parents pressuring them to give their children As. Having every child in a classroom receive As is not only statistically improbable but fuels the dangerous narrative that “my child only wins.”

This avoidance of failure and focus on winning not only sets unrealistic expectations for our children but also fails to prepare them for their inevitable failures. The result is that our children’s mental health suffers greatly under these pressures and lack of preparation for an essential life skill: coping with failure. Research by Jennifer Breheny Wallace highlighted in the Harvard Gazette refers to this as “achievement pressure.” She authored the New York Times bestseller Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It. Wallace acknowledges that this increased focus on success is likely due to an increasingly competitive economic market, meaning that parents, of course, have the best of intentions. However, the consequences remain the same for teens. The mounting pressure on teens to succeed has devastating effects on their loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

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This overemphasis on everyone needing to win can make children fear failure and view their “failed selves” as devalued or less worthy. With these learnings in mind, the fear of experiencing loss or failure becomes so overwhelming to children and teens that they’d rather hit eject or not even venture out on new paths where they sense failure might be a possibility. And when they do fail, they often have their value wrapped up in the outcome and thus feel devalued when they fail.

In her interview with the Gazette, Wallace states, “According to a decade’s worth of resilience research, the No. 1 intervention for any child in distress is to make sure that their primary caregivers are OK.” In other words, children need to experience distress in safe environments to know that distress, failure, and loss are all OK. They need to know that they will be OK and are valuable, even if or rather when they lose.

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Backing Wallace’s findings, research shows that failure is a key step to building resilience in children. When “everyone wins” all the time, we shelter our children from opportunities to build this key skill of resilience in safe and supportive environments. Then, when they get older and can no longer be in these ultra-protected environments, we toss our children into scenarios of failure without the lifevest of resilience.

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But when children encounter these failures in safe environments with supportive teachers, coaches, and parents, they can learn to become more resilient. Protecting children from the hurt and disappointment of a loss or failure is understandable and alluring. But teaching kids to experience, tolerate, and learn that they can not only survive but, in fact, move past loss or failure is an important life skill that I worry we aren’t developing in our children.

If the parents, teachers, and coaches working with our children hold narratives like “we can overcome struggle,” “we can survive and learn from loss,” and “everyone fails sometimes,” it teaches kids to push forward and not give up. Additionally, by teaching loss as an inevitability some of the time, we also decouple children’s identities and worth from their success—a key feature not only of resilience but also of thriving and succeeding, according to Wallace.

To be clear, I do think there needs to be plenty of opportunities for kids to play without the score being kept. It’s what the tee-ball little league is trying to provide. A space where kids can learn, explore, and play simply to have fun rather than to win. That’s what developmental psychologist Peter Gray, who is a research professor at Boston College, argues for in his work. Gray highlights how we have overstructured kids’ play so that everything is a formal activity overseen by adults. But, he notes, kids need more space to engage in open and free play that only includes other kids. In his book Free to Learn, Gray notes that allowing our children to play will make them happier, more reliant, and more capable of thriving.

We must do both. We must provide more spaces where our children, including our teens, can play openly rather than always competing to win. But we must also provide structured opportunities where our children can lose and know that they are OK, that we still love and value them, and that they can move on from their failures. This is how we build resilient and happy children.

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