The Playmobil castle sits on the table, untouched, the knight’s sword drooping forlornly. It was supposed to be the main attraction during my five-year-old son’s playdate, but my kid—gleeful owner of at least four other Playmobil sets, 127 Pokémon cards, a Lord of the Rings goblin king, and an electronic keyboard with a bonus feature that can turn musical notes into machine gunfire—has shoved aside his mountain of toys and latched onto something far more tantalizing: his friend Neil’s* armpit. His head is wedged under it, his hip levered against Neil’s, and he’s shoving his cheerfully grinning buddy down onto the floor, as he always seems to do when the two get together.
Before long, they’re rolling across the living room, bear cubs in cargo pants, and I’m fighting the urge to tell them to stop. To me, as the mother of an only child, all the pushing and pulling, and panting and shoving, is a bit unsettling.
But my husband says it’s OK—this is how kids play. Which may be true, but my lovely spouse is also the one on the soccer field who calls out, “Come on, you can try harder than that!” while the rest of the parents are murmuring a steady, supportive stream of “Good job, good job.” So I find myself worrying, perhaps excessively, that our family is perched on a slippery slope of aggression. Isn’t play-wrestling the kind of thing that begins with a head-butt and ends with visits from a parole officer? “Make sure to tell your mom you played with Lego, too!” I urge Neil a little too brightly as he leaves our house. “And not the Star Wars stuff with the guns!”
Previous generations wouldn’t have worried the way I do. (Back then, a breezy “boys will be boys” dismissal explained just about any bruise-inducing behaviour.) But I’m reluctant to buy into gender stereotypes, and I’m vigilant about violence, as are many other parents I know. Liz Kingstone, a Toronto kindergarten teacher and mother of three boys, struggles with her sons’ tendency to tackle each other. It never ends well, she says. “I find play-fighting a bit violent. Kids need to be physical, but there are lots of ways to do that without being down on the floor wrestling.”
However, a growing body of recent research suggests that we shouldn’t be so nervous about physical play. In an era of bubble-wrap parenting, roughhousing can seem aggressive, but social scientists say the benefits outweigh the risks. Intense physical play offers a variety of surprising advantages, from developing kids’ intelligence to making them more ethical—and even more likeable. In Top Dog, a book about the science of winning and losing published in 2013, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that roughhousing can help your kids learn to thrive in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world.
The most vocal proponents of intense physical play are physician Anthony DeBenedet and psychologist Lawrence Cohen, authors of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. The book, released in Canada in 2011, contains how-to illustrations for a variety of moves to try at home, as well as science-based evidence. DeBenedet says rough play is good for the brain: It stimulates neuron growth within the cortex amygdala and cerebellum regions, areas responsible for emotional memory, language and logic. How well kids roughhouse (more on that in a moment) is actually linked to how well they do in their early years of school—up to grade three, DeBenedet says. Intense physical play helps them develop not just cognitive intelligence, but emotional intelligence. While pinning a squirming pal down on the floor, they learn to read body language, facial expressions and other social cues, like when their friend has had enough. “It may be counterintuitive,” says DeBenedet, “but it really helps kids develop.”
We need to stop worrying and just let our kids playOne of the most surprising components of successful roughhousing, though, is parental involvement. Kingstone is right when she says that scraps between siblings rarely end well. Brothers and sisters clash about 3.5 times per hour, or a combined total of 10 minutes per hour on average, and only about one in eight incidents get resolved through compromise or reconciliation, according to Hildy Ross, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Some researchers believe that dealing with sibling aggression helps children understand the idea of competition. (Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff at the White House, talks in interviews about the intensely competitive nature of his family environment, which may have helped shape his own scrappy spirit—and probably injected a little gritty resilience in his two highly successful brothers, Hollywood talent agent Ari Emanuel, who was the inspiration for Ari Gold on Entourage, and Ezekiel Emanuel, a prominent bioethicist.) But it’s mothers and fathers who help kids get the most out of roughhousing.
As controversial as this may sound to the hardcore attachment-parenting set, when a parent’s sole focus is building a close, secure bond with his or her child, another critical developmental role can be neglected, argues researcher Daniel Paquette, a professor of psychoeducation at the University of Montreal. Parents also have to encourage risk-taking and other exploratory behaviour, he says. Parent-child roughhousing enables kids (both boys and girls) to explore aggression within the context of an emotional bond. They learn to pull back or push boundaries further, depending on the feedback they get. And by practising aggression in a safe environment as a kid, they learn to be comfortable with it and take more risks as an adult, whether it’s by standing up to a bullying colleague or asking for a raise.
The research that Paquette and his colleagues are working on suggests that fathers, in particular, can play a critical role in helping kids develop these skills. One longitudinal study he did showed that dads who’d been “weak-dominant” during roughhousing sessions (letting the kids win most of the time or failing to set clear rules) had children who weren’t able to regulate their emotions effectively. Those who’d been “strong-dominant,” leading the play and establishing boundaries, had kids who could successfully manage their own aggression. (Paquette stresses that he highlights the role of fathers because they tend to engage more often and more intensely in physical play, not because mothers can’t play a similar role.)
“When we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back,” DeBenedet and Cohen write. “We teach them self-control, fairness and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn’t everything. We show them how much can be accomplished by cooperation, and how to constructively channel competitive energy so that it doesn’t take over.”
James DeGreef, a dad in Victoria, BC, intuitively understands the importance of regular rough-and-tumble play with his two girls, ages six and 10. “When I was young my father roughhoused with me a lot and I loved it,” he says, “and my girls love it, too.” The family just got a new puppy, and the way the dog responds to physical play with other dogs reminds him of his wrestling sessions with his daughters. “The animal kingdom has it figured out. Puppies roll around in the dog park, and over time, you see them figuring out their boundaries.”
DeGreef’s kids enjoyed roughhousing from the start, but DeBenedet acknowledges that some kids aren’t necessarily ready to be picked up and hurled into a Greek Catapult or a Human Cannonball (two of the suggested moves in his book). Parents should ease into this sort of play by making sure that kids are in the right frame of mind when they’re initiating it and establishing silly code words to signal when they’ve had enough.
But what passes for acceptable play in one family doesn’t necessarily work for others, as Lyz Lenz, a mom blogger in the US, has discovered. Lenz loves seeing her daughter tussle with playmates, and encourages her to get physical. One of eight kids herself, she recalls a childhood full of sibling smack downs, and she credits it with making her the resilient person she is today. “We went a little nuts,” she says. “We learned how to figure things out, how to share, how to say no, how to stand up for yourself.”
As a parent, she’s happy to see her daughter Ellis, 2, do the same. But she’s often shut down by other parents. “It happened just last Thursday at the park,” she says. “Ellis was digging sandcastles with a boy. They started tackling each other, having a fun time. Then the other mother got up and told her son, ‘Don’t push her, she’s a girl.’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s OK, they’re having a good time. Let’s let them figure out.’ But she said, ‘No, I don’t want him treating girls like that.’ It sucks to see your kid having fun and then having that party broken up.”
DeBenedet says roughhousing can benefit both genders, often in different ways. “For boys, it’s a way to learn physical interaction that isn’t violent or sexual. For girls, it’s finding a way to make sure their voice is heard.”
All of this makes sense, but it’s not enough to convince Kingstone, the kindergarten teacher. “I’m just not OK with kids coming over to our house and suddenly everyone’s down on the floor,” she says. “Some kids may be able to learn something from playing like that, but some don’t—I’ve seen that in my classroom. There are kids who want to be wrestling on the carpet at school, and they don’t understand why they can’t.” She says that it’s confusing when roughhousing is acceptable at home, but not in class. Besides, why encourage children to play in a way that looks like a hockey fight or a WWE match? “I’d rather snuggle,” she jokes.
In Paquette’s surveys of children’s behaviour for the University of Montreal, kid-initiated roughhousing peaks at around three or four, but continues till about age 10. So our family has a good five years left. I’d like to say that I’ve joined in on the fun and become one of the 73 percent of moms who reported engaging in some sort of physical play at least twice a week (compared to 86 percent of dads), but I’m still a reluctant roughhouser.
I’m trying, though. I don’t want my son to develop inappropriate responses to aggression. (According to Paquette’s research, animals deprived of roughhousing imagine threats where none exist.) And I don’t want to disadvantage my kid, either. (Paquette’s cross-cultural studies indicate that in the most competitive societies, parents and children engage in more intense physical play.) If I don’t hoist my kid in the air and then execute a headlock or sleeper hold every once in a while, will he grow up to be a sensitive, unmotivated softie? I still don’t really know, but I did let him knock me down the other day. I guess that’s progress.
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “Wrestling rules,” pp. 61-63.