How misguided compassion can end up being a child’s worst enemy in terms of healthy social and emotional development

Nine-year-old Billy had been a brash schoolyard basketball player when I first met him. Now, a year later, he sat in my office sad and forlorn, next to his worried dad. “He won’t play basketball or do anything with the other kids,” his dad said. “He just wants to play video games, and only by himself.”

I remembered something else about Billy—he’d been a kid who enjoyed playing as long as he won. It wasn’t that he didn’t like playing if he didn’t win; he didn’t play unless he knew he was going to win.

Billy, an only child, had lost his mother to cancer when he was three years old. His paternal grandparents were helping Billy’s father raise and care for Billy. Over the years, however, unable to bear the idea of Billy losing anything more, Billy’s grandparents would let him win anything they could—board games, contests, arguments. Outside of his grandparents’ home, however, Billy had to win the old-fashioned way, by earning it. Soon, Billy’s only playmates were his grandparents and father.

This is a good example of how misguided compassion can end up being a child’s worst enemy in terms of healthy social and emotional development. Winning games or battles could offer only short-term gratification for a boy who would have gotten more from learning that he was a winner in his family’s eyes no matter what his standings in a game were or whether they agreed or disagreed on things. In a vacuum, winning really doesn’t mean a whole lot in the end. Billy had been disadvantaged by his family’s sympathetic overtures—so dependent upon winning in order to feel important that he couldn’t tolerate the frustration of playing with other kids and losing. And so he played alone.

The sad truth is that in the long run the world doesn’t care a whole lot about any one person’s pain; it keeps on spinning. But close family members and relatives and friends and others do care, and children, whether grieving, disabled, impaired or not, are best served when those around them sympathize without holding them to a lesser standard of being.  I believe strongly that compassion is best expressed directly—through words or kind eyes or touch or simple gestures of support during unquiet moments. Saying something like, I’m sorry that these things are difficult for you, and I’m so sorry that I can’t give you the one thing I know you want more than anything—your mom—and it makes me want to give you everything else in this world, but I can’t, and shouldn’t even if I could, do more for a child’s heart and for his ability to relate genuinely and clearly with others than any material victory ever could.

Excerpted from, The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood

— Janet Sasson Edgette