Parenthood is for Losers

“Why can’t they all just get along?!”

It’s every parent’s lament. Siblings who won’t quit fighting can put tremendous stress upon a marriage and a familyAs a parent of three, I know it all too well. And as a psychologist, I hear the lament from countless couples who are wondering how to navigate complicated sibling rivalries. But I think we can simplify things a little: 

If we want our children to live peacefully with each other, they must learn to embrace mutual surrender and loss. Which means the people they emulate must become willing losers… 

Loser

Photo Credit: Niklas Hellerstedt (Creative Commons

Last week, I stood at the bathroom sink as my two youngest children battled for the toothpaste. As Quinn yanked it from Caitlin’s hands, her eyes flamed and she reached deep down into her arsenal and bellowed, “Loser!” 

Quinn sent the tube of toothpaste flying past my face, along with his retort, “That’s mean!” 

After ensuring the toothpaste had missed its intended target, I turned to Quinn and asked him why the name had hurt him so much. He replied, “Losers are bad. I hate losing.” 

I looked into the sink and wondered, “Why does my son have such hatred for losing?”

A War-Torn World

Maybe it’s because we live in a victory-crazed world, and “loser” has become the ultimate slur. Several weeks ago, Lance Armstrong confessed to years of lying and cheating. He was willing to trade his integrity for victory.

Last Sunday the Superbowl was played before millions—young men exchanging concussions for first downs, trading health for a big ring and bragging rights.

An article in last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune recommended parents begin competing for their children’s college placement before the tikes are out of diapers. 

I hear teens in my office describe Facebook as an internet death match—losers are destroyed by cyber-bullying and then resurrected by a slew of “Likes.”

And even our churches are in competition, fighting for a shrinking number of parishioners.

I Hate to Lose

I stood at the sink, head hanging, and I wondered to myself, “Is that why Quinn has so much hatred for losing?” Then, shaking my head in frustration, I looked up. I was staring into the mirror, and I saw the real answer staring back at me.

I saw myself

It would be easy to blame our hyper-competitive world for my children’s behavior. But the truth is, I friggin hate to lose. And my kids aren’t watching the world. They’re watching me.

Parents, our kids are watching us.

We can preach humility and compromise and forgiveness and reconciliation, but do we act like its okay to lose?

Or are we fighting a covert war for our worth? Mothers competing with other mothers for the mantle of most composed and most competent. Fathers competing against other fathers to be the best provider with the most successful kids. Spouses competing with each other for affection and affirmation and power. In one breath, we encourage our children to share the toys and forgive a sibling, and in the next breath we turn back to our partner and continue the perpetual battle for a satisfying love.

We resist becoming a marriage of losers, and then we wonder why our kids refuse to lose to each other with grace. 

As it turns out, my children aren’t casualties of a war-torn world. They are the product of my refusal to lose. 

Family is for Losers

In a world bent on victory, if we want our children to find peace amongst themselves and within themselves, we must shape our households into enclaves of sacrificial love, mutual surrender, and courageous vulnerability. 

We must become families of losers.

But we won’t transform our homes by preaching it. We have to start living it. We have to start living it in our marriages and friendships and communities. But even more importantly, we have to start living like a loser with our children.

I send my kids to time-out for a rules infraction. But how often do I let them send me to time-out for the very same infraction?

I make sure they apologize when their anger does damage, but how often do I chalk up my raised voice and caustic words to stress and the burden of parenting? What would happen if I got down on one knee, looked them in the eye, and apologized for my behavior?

How often do I chastise them for choosing petty battles and then turn around and do the same thing? How might their hearts soften if I surrendered, gave them a hug, and told them it felt good to lose to somebody I love?

I think as parents, it’s time we learn the art of surrender and teach our children about the quiet-subversive rules in this game of Life:

When we choose loss, we choose love.

When we lay down our weapons, we lay down our burdens.

Becoming weak is the strongest thing we’ll ever do.

The heartbeat of life is connection, not competition. 

When we bury our pride, we resurrect our marriages and families and friendships and a world thirsty for humility.

When we embrace vulnerability, we wrap our arms around an entirely different kind of victory. Because losing graciously is the doorway to peace, and peace is the real victory we are all chasing anyway.

And finally, we are defined by more than our wins and losses. We are defined by Grace. It testifies to everything beautiful within us.

I want our grace to testify to the beauty within our children. I want them to learn about the subtle rebellion of the loser, and I hope they will turn this world upside down with their love.

Question: In what ways do you live out surrender in your family? We all need to hear your creativity; share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.      

Dear Reader, My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is all about becoming a loser. If you want to read it, there are two ways to get a copy. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. From one loser to another, Kelly

Preview: My next post will be on Tuesday, February 12, and the working title is, “10 Lessons I Learned in 10 Days as Mr. Mom.” This will be followed by a special Valentine’s post on Thursday (replacing Friday’s normal post), and it will be entitled, “Why Good Enough Love is Better Than Amazing Love.” 

 Other Posts Related to Parenting: 

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Deborah Suess Weaver

    I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you. A powerful mantra for me right now. It at first admits I was in the battle for which I take my part of the responsibility. Next, I acknowledge that I have been hurt by the other, but it is over and forgiven. And then I reaffirm that after it all, I still love. Amazing ho err it works even with crabby people at store or my adopted son who has chosen his birth family over 18 years in ours.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is a GREAT mantra, Deborah. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Chris

    The girls have both flown the nest and have children of their own. I can only practice the gentle art of losing graciously with my wife.

    But your post set me thinking, Kelly.

    There is another environment in which we can train up others to lose in the right way, and that is church. In the church community too it is of critical importance that we set the best possible example. We are surrounded by many younger than us in the faith, and they are just like your children, they are watching us more mature believers and will learn from us.

    We have the choice. Will they learn good, wholesome lessons from us or will they learn to be grasping and unkind?

    • drkellyflanagan

      I always love your comments, Chris. This is a great observation. In many ways, we have opportunities to be parents far beyond our own children, don’t we?

  • Jennifer Newell

    You sure have had me thinking today. It really makes you stop for a moment if you consider they learned it mostly from you. I guess Winning as well as always being Right go hand in hand.

  • Raquel

    With my three kids under five ‘losing’ to them is sometimes as simple as giving up my ‘important’ task to sit with my oldest while she sounds out words, or to stop trying to force my will on my two-year old and remember to ask nicely and say please (he always responds positively, to my continued amazement), or to sing my ten month old to sleep tonight, even though he’s been falling asleep on his own for months. But as simple as it can be, it takes my concious effort each time.
    I try to keep this Spanish proverb in mind with my husband “Dos no pelean si uno no quiere” – Two cannot fight if one doesn’t want to.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Raquel, thank you for this. I think you’re exactly right: losing has many guises. Sometimes, just joining them when we would prefer to be doing something else feels like losing, but it is so good for them!

  • laurs

    In times of conflict, my husband often reminds me that ” we’re on the same team”- rather than pitting myself against my husband, he comes alongside me so we face the divisive issue together. This has become the best guard against “being right”.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Laura.