Developing Incompetence in Children: Three Easy Steps

Shouldn’t our lives be fair, happy, free of adversity?  Couldn’t our own parents have done a better job protecting us from the bad things in life: illnesses, failures, deaths of loved ones, defeats, disappointments and the like? It’s high time we create a better, happier life for our children. And here’s how:

STEP ONE: Unhappiness Prevention

          When children cry, indeed even when they whine or look sad, they are feeling unhappiness, that most hurtful of experiences. To preclude such, parents must ensure that from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night, their children feel delight and pleasure. To cheer them, they must offer them rewards. A bit of candy, a new toy, even a handful of change can banish unhappiness.  Whether children are  down or bored or just in a bad mood, their sighs and tears can be turned upside down with just a little parental sympathy and some tangible “goody”. Pretty soon, they learn that just the slightest hint of unhappiness will win a reward from truly caring parents. In time they will take comfort in knowing that their parents have become adept at anticipating their unhappiness. Then, they feel secure. And they learn a very important life “skill”: They don’t have to do anything to make matters better; their parents can and will “make” them happy. Unnecessary efforts to develop emotional controls, to do something for themselves to feel better and to overcome bad moods independently are eliminated, for these efforts can tire children and make them unhappier. By the time children reach grade-school age under such a regime of unqualified parental love, they feel like royalty. They feel happiness is owed them by others in their worlds.

STEP TWO: Failure Prevention

Related to Step One is the goal of making any sort of failure impossible. Most effective in teaching children that they can’t fail is by seeing to it that everything they attempt leads to success. So, for example a father might let his son win at every game they play together. This “no-lose” strategy obviates experiences of deficiency, bad luck and other the meanness of arbitrary fate. It nurtures in children a  sense of omnipotence, a feeling that any goal can be realized with only the slightest of unpleasant efforts. Ultimately, children evolve a much-needed sense of entitlement, a sense that life is just waiting to shower them with joys and pleasures simply because they are alive and want things that they “deserve” and “have a right to”. In fact, a little round of applause or a small, tangible reward when a child gets up in the morning, or drinks her juice or eats her Pop-Tart can go a long way in establishing the security of unearned entitlement.

STEP THREE: Prevention of the Need To Work

Work is an unhappy word, especially for children. It denotes effort, labor, sweat and invites frustration and that worst of childhood experiences, defeat and failure. By following STEP TWO (above) and by eliminating drudges, chores and unstimulating “duties” from children’s lives, good parents can ensure true and pristine joy in their children, the sense that INaction is more effective and satisfying than action, that success will be theirs precisely because that’s the way life is. Parents can teach their children this fact by reinforcing inaction, by applauding the pursuit of immediate gratification and by removing all obstacles to achievement that might  require energy expenditures. A child without any responsibilities in the world is, in the end, a happy child.


By following these guidelines, by expanding upon them at every opportunity, parents can successfully raise  completely dependent and  narcissistic children, bringing to adulthood offspring that choose not to leave home, establish their own lives, contribute to society or… in the end … love and respect their parents. Because, in the end, they recognize that they have not had to learn self-restraint, delay of gratification, resilience in the face of adversity, resourcefulness in problem-solving, self-reliance, faith in themselves  and the ineffable joys of independent accomplishment. As they approach adulthood, they see they have been taught incompetence by the very people who were supposed to have loved them. And then, impotence and resentment prevail.


3 Responses to “Developing Incompetence in Children: Three Easy Steps”

  1. 1 Angelo Otterbein
    January 12, 2012 at 11:45 am

    It’s interesting to read this. As I play games with my 4-year-old son, including tedious ones like Chutes & Ladders, Trouble and Candy Land, I sometimes feel guilty when I’ve won, in part because he’s starting to feel a sense of disappointment when he loses. I’ve been tempted to game the game and let him win. Additionally, my 7-year-old daughter seems to be becoming unnecessarily triumphant and vocal when she beats him in one thing or another, sometimes with a clear unfair advantage of 3 years more under her belt; I sometimes tell her now to be so “happy” when she says “I won!” Do you think I should just let him find his own response or continue to help her tone down her enthusiasm?

  2. January 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    As long as your son doesn’t develop a sense of omnipotence, a strategy you adopt to let him win is harmless, especially if it encourages him to learn more about strategy and the like. Just a week or so ago, I started a game of checkers with my own 4-year-old grandson, one which quickly became a mix of chess and checkers as he added queens and knights onto the board, together with rules that permitted him and me to move our pieces in all directions. He quickly took ALL my pieces with one move using one checker to act as both queen and knight and capture all my men by moving that checker sweepingly across the board in several directions. He declared , with some flair, that he had “won”, got down from the game table and found something more interesting or sane to do.

    Young children don’t “get” rules very well; they can learn them, but rules just don’t make sense. Too arbitrary I guess, and abstract. The rule that a checker can only be moved away from its owner can be mystifying to many a pre-schooler. And the concept of “winning” is even harder to make sense of. For example, I have yet to understand “point spreads” in sports gambling, especially if that spread includes a half-point (as in “The Ravens are a 7 1/2 point favorite for Sunday’s game). So if I bet on the Ravens and they LOSE by one or two points, I do NOT lose. But I don’t know why. So If I do win or lose, I quickly lose interest in betting and buy a beer instead. Beer makes sense; point spreads are nonsense and not worth my time.

    The same with your 4 year-old. If he cannot invest himself intellectually in a game because it doesn’t make sense, because winning is as serendipitous as losing, he’ll no more continue playing at such folly than he would try to fly by flapping his arms really fast. So I say, let him win from time to time if that serves the larger purpose of developing his resources, his strategizing ability and his abstract thinking.

    As far as his sister’s trumpetings when she wins, I would certainly speak to her about toning it down. While it’s true that your son probably doesn’t mind her crowing nearly as much as you (since he doesn’t “get” how she won in the first place …or why), there is still no defensible reason for letting her celebrate her superiority. No one learns anything from this. And it doesn’t contribute to the development of empathy, good sportsmanship and fair play that take so long to acquire. Don’t overestimate your son’s ” discouragement”, for developing that emotion is contingent upon the prior establishment of conscious linkages between goal-directed plans, complex decision-making and appreciation of basic cause-effect contingencies. These notions are slow to evolve in children. Hence, his “agony of defeat” is diminished markedly if he has no idea of what he’s doing or why.

    Of course, you could also just play catch or something concrete like that. Good luck. Dr. Otterbein

  3. 3 Bev-Otter
    January 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Learning how to lose is just as valuable as celebrating victory. What is absolute though is sportsmanship. We have insisted in our family that win or lose, at the end of the match you shake hands over the game or on the court or on the field and say out loud “nice game” even if it’s painful being the loser after a hard fought match. No gloating or bragging allowed as this is considered unsportsmanlike. If anything losing should drive ones attitude to get better and improve (or simply wimp out and chose not to participate). What is so frustrating is the “everyone should get a medal or trophy” ideology at the end of a competition so no one’s feelings get hurt. No, it’s a harsh reality, if you don’t win, you lose, no such thing as a second place winner, only a first place loser. If you don’t like it, take up knitting or reading.

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