Bob Vanech always cheers for his son Tristan, whether it's in football, baseball or in their shared love of Scrabble.
But when Mr. Vanech found himself competing one-on-one against Tristan, 14, at the U.S. National Scrabble Championship in Dallas, last week, he was torn.
"The feeling that went through my body was, 'I'm going to play the way I always play. I'm going to beat this kid!' " he says. "And then I'm like, 'Oh no, but then he's going to lose' … So the emotional roller coaster was no matter what the outcome was, I was going to lose: I would feel horrible that I beat him, or if I lost, I'd feel horrible because I was losing."
In the end, he didn't hold back and outmatched his son by a solid 63 points.
His dilemma is likely familiar to any parent who's played board games or sports against a child. It's practically an unwritten rule of parenting to intentionally let one's child win. But at what point do you stop throwing your game? And is it a good idea to let them beat you in the first place?
While some believe the tactic boosts self-esteem, others argue it gives children a false sense of confidence.
At home in Venice, Calif., Mr. Vanech says he has never let his Scrabble whiz son beat him at any game - not even at one-on-one basketball, despite his considerable size advantage at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds compared with his son's 5-foot-7, 102 pounds.
To level the playing field, he used to set up a handicap system under which Tristan could start off with extra points, and he still lets him get away with foul plays. But to purposefully lose is "horrible parenting," Mr. Vanech says.
"I'll hug him when he's down, I'll lift him up when his spirits need to be lifted and I'll let him know when he's breaking the rules. But [letting him win is]an unfair leg up that I don't think is a good way to live."
Throwing a game may give kids an 'inflated sense of what they're able to do'
Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal apparently holds a different view.
In an interview published in Vanity Fair magazine this month, Mr. O'Neal said he reins in his competitive streak when it comes to playing basketball with his son.
"You got to give him the game occasionally," he said, explaining that he once beat his son, "and he got that look in his eyes. So I said, 'No, man, it's a best of seven.' So we play two more games and he beats me each time … and then I tie it up. Three games apiece. And then I say, 'I'm tired. We'll finish up tomorrow.' "
That tie-breaker, however, never happens.
"I don't want to lose," Mr. O'Neal said and laughed. "I know it's going to happen some day. Some day he'll beat me."
Michelle Davies of Calgary says she throws the occasional card game when it looks as though her children Ethan, 8, and Kristen, 6, might give up trying to learn it. But she plays at her normal level at simpler games for which they've already developed skills.
Even so, she avoids making it competitive.
"My personal belief is there's too much emphasis on 'winning' out there," says Ms. Davies, founder and editor of the parenting website EverythingMom.com.
Instead, she praises her children for their co-operation or how they handled a specific move, focusing on how they play rather than the outcome.
While parents may avoid meltdowns or making their children feel inferior in the short term, letting them win simply delays the inevitable as they'll have to learn to deal with defeat sooner or later, says Sara Dimerman of Thornhill, Ont., a child and family therapist and author of Character is the Key: How to Unlock the Best in Our Children and Ourselves.
"It sets up that really difficult precedent in terms of your child always expecting to win," she says. "Your child may have an inflated sense of what they're able to do, so then when they're playing the same game with their peer … they may wonder, 'Why am I having such a difficulty here?' "
Ms. Dimerman recommends that parents play co-operative games with their children instead of competitive ones or games that rely on chance. And if children insist on engaging in games that require a clear winner or loser, she suggests warning them about the discrepancy in skills and experience. Parents may pair children with another adult or stack siblings on the same team to make it fair, she says.
However, Massachusetts-based psychologist Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, says letting children win fills them the confidence they require to tolerate competition with their peers.
"Just like they need a place that they know is home, with competition, they need a place where they know that life isn't just tooth and nail," he says, adding that if a child has a particularly bad day at the playground, she may need to go home and play wrestle with a parent and be able to knock him over with one small push.
He says children will give signals when they're ready for a challenge, such as asking parents whether they're trying their hardest. At some point, he says, they'll find confidence, not by winning but by testing themselves to see how good they are.
For Mr. Vanech, his own mixed feelings about defeating his son at Scrabble will be short-lived. By next year, he expects, Tristan will be able to beat him handily.
And when he does, he says, "It'll be one of my proudest moments."