When Laurie Thompson’s* five-year-old son, Owen,* started getting in trouble at school for roughhousing, she was surprised—it just didn’t sound like her kid. “He’s a lovely, gentle, sensitive boy at home,” she says. At school, though, Owen and his friends were pushing and tripping one another, even kicking one another in the groin. Although they said they were having fun, inevitably someone would get injured. “The roughness scares me,” says Thompson. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Whether the behaviour is out of character or not, it’s totally natural to be worried that you might be raising a goon. But roughhousing is totally normal, especially among boys, says Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist and parenting expert.
Kids actually do a lot of learning when they play-fight with each other. For one thing, they discover who’s physically dominant, which helps them understand social hierarchies, says Amitay. They also figure out that if they’re not the strong one, they’ll need to capitalize on their other strengths—such as negotiating—to be more dominant in their social sphere.
On top of that, when kids play rough, they learn how their bodies work, says Lawrence J. Cohen, a licensed psychologist in Boston and co-author of The Art of Roughhousing. “It’s physical fitness and physical confidence,” he says. “Good roughhousing is more like dancing than like fighting.”
School rules Although rough play can be valuable (and fun!), your child’s school likely has explicit rules against it, since most learning institutions are required to provide safe learning environments and follow codes of conduct that adhere to provincial education ministry policies. “A typical school will say to students, ‘We expect you to keep your hands and feet to yourself and interact in a way that won’t hurt others,’” says Ted Libera, the central coordinating principal of the Caring and Safe Schools team for the Toronto District School Board. He says staff review every situation: “We’re assessing, monitoring, reminding and educating students about what is and isn’t appropriate.” The main goal: Make sure no one gets hurt, even if it’s just in fun.
Policies vary across the country, but they generally restrict any activity that could potentially cause harm to students. In the province of Ontario, school staff must also consider mitigating factors like age when disciplining children and have a progressive discipline plan (for example, talking to students before taking away recess time, before calling in parents or before resorting to suspension).
Five-year-old Owen has found himself facing the consequences of his roughhousing at school: “Sometimes he’s the one getting in trouble; sometimes he’s the one getting hurt,” says Thompson, who has also disciplined her son for this at home. “He knows it’s wrong,” she says, but she believes Owen gets caught up in the moment when he’s with his pals.
If you allow roughhousing at home, explain school versus home rules to your child. Also clarify that just as you don’t allow, say, ball throwing indoors, there are different rules for different places: Play-fighting and other rough games are for home only.
Crossing the line When is roughhousing no longer just play? If you’re worried your child is in fact getting picked on, rest assured he would realize it. “Children are even better than adults at distinguishing real fighting from play fighting,” says Cohen. As for what’s fair game in a play fight: Experts say grabbing and wrestling are fine, but hitting and punching start to cross the line into aggression. And, of course, all kids involved have to be enjoying themselves. As soon as someone says no, the game is off.
If your kid takes it too far, don’t necessarily outlaw roughhousing altogether. Rather, use it as an opportunity to go over the rules again, says Cohen. “If you end roughhousing, then they don’t learn how to regulate it.”
Roughhousing at home Are you OK with the idea of play-fighting with your kids? But maybe you'd prefer something more structured? If so, try these games at home:
*Names have been changed