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Play vs Competition

I play to win. But I do so with the understanding that playing the game is more important than winning the game.

From the vault: This article was originally posted in February of 2015.

I had a talk yesterday with my 5yo about the difference between Play and Competition. I grew up in a very sports-oriented competitive family. I’m pretty sure besmirching the good name of Competition is going to upset some of my family (my sister), but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Now some of this is going to be semantics, so let’s not get overly concerned about our precious words. By Play I simply mean engaging in a game or activity for fun. By Competition I mean engaging in a game for the sole purpose of winning. You can Play to win. And you can have fun in competing. But for the sake of this article, Competition will designate when the playfulness has been removed from the game. 

I’ve been watching my boys play a lot lately and I’ve been seeing the contrast between Play and Competition. My 2yo just plays. There’s very little competition in his play. The 5yo competes. Sometimes he is more playful, but often if he is not winning, he doesn’t see value in the game.

For example, if we are all playing Ninja Turtles (which is always), the boys are often play fighting against me and the boys get to win. And if the 5yo goes up against the 2yo, the 2yo will allow the 5yo to win because the 2yo is playing. But if for some reason we try to make it so that the 5yo loses, he gets angry because, while we were playing, he was competing.

The same thing will happen if we are playing soccer. There are times when I let my 5yo win and he really enjoys the game. But then there are times when I decide he needs to be challenged and I win. This can often result in anger and tears. This is because he wasn’t playing. He was competing.*

The way I see it, Play doesn’t mean you aren’t competitive. I grew up playing sports and had a poster on my wall (shown above) of a kid in Baseball gear and the poster said, “I play to win.” I stared at those words every night as I fell asleep. And I still have that attitude. In fact, I still have that poster. But it’s “I PLAY to win.” Not “I COMPETE.” I think this is something I truly learned when I became an improviser and learned to be more playful. 

So now when I play a game, whether it’s a sport, or a board game, or anything at all, I play my hardest. Nobody wants an opponent who isn’t trying. I play to win. But I do so with the understanding that playing the game is more important than winning the game. Because as soon as the joy of game is lost, you’re no longer playing. You’re just competing.

*I should note that my 5yo isn’t as bad of a sport as this article makes him seem. These are the extreme cases, but often he does a very good job of being a good sport.

UPDATE: My kids are 9 and 6 now. The 9yo is still UBER competitive but is learning how to handle the frustrations of losing. There are times when he will play with his little brother in a way where little brother gets to “win”. Other times, his competitive streak kicks in and there’s no stopping him. The 6yo is gaining an interest in competitive sports but still sort of backs away from direct competition. Every day I try to make “play” the focus in our activities.


Sunday Funday!

Every month I co-produce and perform in a family friendly improv comedy show at the Curious Comedy Theater (Portland, OR) called Sunday Funday. Kids of all ages are given lots of opportunities to jump onstage and play in improv games with our cast of stellar improvisers.

Every month I co-produce and perform in a family friendly improv comedy show at the Curious Comedy Theater (Portland, OR) called Sunday Funday. Kids of all ages are given lots of opportunities to jump onstage and play in improv games with our cast of stellar improvisers.

I love this show so much because it is such an expression of joy. The kids love to see adults playing make believe and taking their suggestions and using them in the comedy scenes we create on the spot. It shows the kids that their ideas have real value. Improv shows children how saying yes to each other’s ideas can be a powerful way to create something positive and amazing.

To top it all off, this isn’t one of those kids shows where the parents are left out because all the humor is just for kids. Improv has the unique ability to adapt to the entire audience’s needs and not just cater to one subset of the audience.

Also, before the show we teach a family improv workshop called Yes And Family. The purpose of the workshop is to teach kids and parents alike the basic skills of improvisation, which can help them get onstage and perform, but just as importantly can improve communication and relationships within the family.

For more information about this show click one of the following links:

Sunday Funday Facebook Event

Sunday Funday Info on

Yes And Family workshop info on

What the Oscars Can Teach Us About Parenting

1. The best way to start the day is with a song and dance number. Monologue jokes can be hit and miss but a medley of your kids’ favorite songs will never go wrong.

2. Keep your speeches short.

3. There are a lot of categories to be won. So what if your kid can’t make the best picture. Let them know how much you love their crazy sound effects or how animated they are.

4. Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive.

5. Focus more on their achievements than on what they’re wearing.

6. Teach your kids to applaud the success of others.

7. Teach your kids how to applaud.

Samurai Patriarchy

From the Vault: This was originally posted to the old IF site on January 4, 2016.

I was reading a book about samurai to my 6-year-old. The book explained that women were trained in sword fighting, not to go to war, but to protect the home.

6-year-old: Oh come on, why couldn’t women go to war?

Me: It’s called the patriarchy.

6-year-old: (pause) Whatever that is, I hate it.

Parker’s Projects: Perler Beads

Parker is always building, creating, and inventing something. One of his favorite gifts for Christmas was just a bag of assorted craft supplies from the Dollar Store.

Last night he was working with Perler Beads. He was in his room for an hour, headphones on listening to an audio book, as he made an assortment of Pokémon designs.

I really hope his creative and crafty spirit never dies.

If you want Parker to make you something, leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

Dropping the Agenda

From the Vault: This article was originally posted on the old IF site on April 7, 2015

We always have an agenda with our kids. Especially during bed time. The bed time routine is a surgically precise itinerary filled with teeth brushing, potty going, and book reading. 

Lately I’ve felt myself having a tough time with our 5-year-old who has the focus of a…5-year-old. Imagine that. The main source of my frustration has simply been me having an agenda and him not complying with that agenda. He’s not being disobedient. He’s just…you know…all over the place. 

Tonight as we got to his room for the book reading portion of the bed time routine, I decided to drop my agenda. Usually this part of the routine goes something like this:

“Chandler, why don’t you pick a book for us to read.”
(Chandler does something with his Legos)
“Chandler please pick a book to read.”
“Dad who do you think would win? Hulk or the Thing?”
“I already told you, Hulk is basically unbeatable. Please pick a boo-”
“What if Batman helped the Thing?”
“I’ll pick a book. How about this one?”
(Chandler plays more with his Legos)

And so on and so forth. Tonight I decided to call on my improv training and I “entered the scene” with no agenda. I started the “scene” by asking him what book he would like to read because that’s the premise of the scene. But when he responded with a question about the Peter Pan show he saw earlier that night, I abandoned my agenda and just listened to him. I focused on only him and made sure to respond directly to what he was saying. I played the conversation like an improv scene, supporting and heightening his ideas. 

What ensued was a really nice conversation filled with a lot of giggles. And eventually he said, “OK let’s read a book.” He then picked a book and we read it. It’s as if because I took the time to focus on him, he became more focused on what I wanted. 

We can’t always drop our agenda to follow the crazy whims of our children. But the more opportunities you can find to let your kids take the lead, the more willing they will be to follow you back.

House Points

In our house we work hard to promote good behavior through positive reinforcements (like giving treats to a dog after it does a trick) more often than through negative reinforcements (like saying, “NO. Bad Dog” and whapping it on the nose with a rolled up newspaper). Some time last year I came up with a new system which we now call “House Points”. And similar to the points system at Hogwarts, we award the kids points when they exhibit good behavior. But there’s more. Each point is worth a penny, and they can save up their points and use them to buy virtually anything they want (within reason).

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Aren’t you just bribing your kids to be good?”

Yes. Yes I am.

But let me explain how this system evolved. It started at a time when the boys were having a particularly hard time getting along. Every interaction ended in an argument. We were growing weary of scolding them for this behavior and looking instead for a way to reward them when they demonstrated good behavior. So I came up with what I called, “Good Brother Points”.

Any time I saw one of them being kind to the other one, or unselfish with the other one, or doing a good job of listening to the other one, I gave them some points. And when one of them made a poor choice I would say something like, “That was an opportunity to earn some Good Brother Points by using your words to ask for that toy rather than just taking it out of your brother’s hands.” They never lose points. They are just made aware of when they missed an opportunity to earn points.

The system worked OK at first, much like getting sticker rewards in the classroom. But the novelty of earning “points” was wearing off. That’s when I brought money into the picture. Usually, if I have any loose change in my pockets at the end of the day, I will find random spots around the house to leave them like the Easter Bunny leaving eggs. If the kids find the coins, they get to keep them.

One day I decided to use the change with the Good Brother Points. At the end of the day I went to Chandler’s room. “Chandler, you earned 15 Good Brother Points today. You made a lot of good choices with your brother. I’m proud of you.” I gave him the coins and his eyes lit up.

Now you might say, “You shouldn’t have to PAY your kids to be good.” And yeah, you make a good point. But what I was really doing was paying them to build up the habit of always thinking about how they can be unselfish and kind to others. I could just lecture them and give them time outs and other punishments for their selfish behavior. But that doesn’t give them incentive to be unselfish. It just gives them incentive to not get caught being selfish.

Eventually we expanded the concept from “Good Brother Points” to “Good Citizen Points”. Now they could earn points for anything they did to help out around the house or to help another person. If they take their plates from the dinner table to the kitchen sink on their own, that earns them some points. If they show gratitude for something without being prompted by a parent, that’s points. And the truth is, it has been working. With gentle daily reminders, they are on the lookout for opportunities to earn points by being kind and unselfish. Slowly but surely, they are making unselfish thinking a habit.

Now let’s talk about the money. My wife and I keep a shared note where we basically have a ledger for their House Points (Good Citizen Points were rebranded as House Points because…HARRY POTTER). Basically, it’s like a bank account for the kids. We also add in any birthday/holiday money they get from relatives. Then, whenever we are at a store somewhere and inevitably one of them says, “Can I get that?” We say, “Let’s check your House Points and see if you have enough.” If they have enough, we let them get it (within reason). If they don’t have enough, we let them know they’ll have to keep saving up for it. No argument. If you have it, you can spend it.

I like this because it is teaching them to think about the value of things. Our little one is Spendy McSpender. He wants to buy everything he sees. We try to help him think through his impulse purchases so that he doesn’t have buyer’s remorse, but ultimately that’s a lesson he needs to learn on his own.

The older kid is our little Scrooge McDuck. Over the course of a few birthdays and holidays he has saved up over $400. We’re actually encouraging him to put his money to good use and not just hoard it forever. I pray he never comes asking for it all at once. “Sorry Chandler…our money isn’t exactly liquid at the moment.”

So that’s the House Points system. There are still plenty of times when we resort to punishments and consequences or just straight up using our “outside voices” with them. But this system gives us a way to encourage them on a daily basis to think about helping others. And as a result, I’ve seen them do kind and unselfish acts without expecting to be rewarded. Hopefully a day will come when we won’t need the House Points system and they’ll forget all about the hundreds of dollars I owe them.