“Here it comes! Watch out for the danger!” I yell. With this, I deliver a figure-four leg lock, pinning my eight-year-old son to the back of the couch, one leg clamped down on him, the other hooked underneath. Meanwhile, my arm may seem casually draped over his torso—but there’s nothing casual about the power of that pin. He’s immobilized in our wrestling match, and my moves are kid-approved, judging by his grunts and giggles.
My son and I love to play-fight, and the couch is our wrestling ring. He matches my WWE moves with his own knee drops from the sofa’s arm, followed by pint-sized punches and kicks to my torso and legs. But I’m not his only opponent—my husband is just as likely to wrestle with him, often up on our bed, where they produce Batman-like “pows!” and “whacks!” from the tangle of limbs.
When it comes to roughhousing with my son, I took the lead from my husband, who has long believed that kids need to tussle to work out “the beans” or rambunctiousness packed into their little bodies. The scrappy matches are also very much a part of my kid’s personality—he loves to challenge us physically, unlike his older sister, who drops at the merest tickle. I also see it as toughening him up for school and sports, where being confident in your strength and agility can help when you’re challenged.
That said, we remind him often that while scrapping is OK at home, fighting and violence are not generally acceptable. Are we sending him mixed messages? It seems our son gets it, because he tends to be the peacemaker, not the instigator, in the classroom and schoolyard.
Finally, our matches are a manifestation of our physical closeness. Play-fighting is his bodily connection of choice, and I’m all too aware that as he ages out of Hot Wheels and into Harry Potter, he’s likely to phase out our morning cuddles in favour of those wrestling matches. And that’s OK by me—I’ll happily take what I can get.
Jessica Thomson, mom of three girls
The kids are rolling around on the floor, wrestling and screaming with laughter. They’re fine now, but any second, it’ll go too far. This one will slap that one, that one will pull this one’s hair, and someone (or everyone) will be crying. And once again, I’ll have to break it up. I hate it when they roughhouse; no matter how playfully it starts, someone always ends up hurt. And as for me getting down on the floor and joining in? No way.
Some might say play-fighting with your kids is a good way for them to work off some energy. Sure, maybe, but so is playing in the park, taking a walk, having an impromptu dance party or throwing a ball around in the yard. If they need something a bit more aggressive or competitive, get them involved in a sport. Not only will it rid them of excess energy, but they’ll also get the benefit of learning sportsmanship, self-regulation and teamwork. The kind of physical aggression that happens while roughhousing isn’t acceptable in everyday life, and we’re doing our kids a disservice if we normalize it by calling it “play.”
Some people argue that play-fighting teaches self-defence. If my kids are ever in a situation where they need to physically defend themselves, nothing they’ve learned from wrestling in the basement with me would help them. You know why? Because I wouldn’t have been trying to hurt them, and that person would be. They’d be better off practising how to run fast. Eventually, I do want them to learn to defend themselves, but they’ll do so from a trained instructor who will teach them the skills they need, as well as the restraint and responsibility that should accompany having those skills.
I’m also twice as big as my kids. If one of them accidentally got an elbow in the face, it could do a lot of damage. And just ask anyone who’s ever taken a child-size foot to the crotch—they may be small, but holy crap that hurts. The fact is, play-fighting almost never ends well, so why even go there?
Now, who wants to play tag?
A version of this article appeared in our November 2016 issue, titled “Do you play-fight with your kids?”, pg. 104.