Q: I’m a mom of two young boys who seem intent on killing each other. Every time I turn around they’re rolling around on the floor in a tangle or jumping on each other. I feel like I spend half my time warning them to stop or pulling them apart. My husband tells me that they’re “just playing” and he even initiates it sometimes! I need advice on how to handle this.
A: Roughhousing can look dangerous, I know. And of course, like any social and physical activity, it can end up with tears, hurt feelings, and injury. But with true roughhousing that doesn’t usually happen – and it’s not what the kids remember about it.
Roughhousing or horseplay (rowdy, physical, interactive play) starts in toddler years and usually ends in high school (and then resurfaces again in fatherhood!). Boys tend to roughhouse more than girls, which helps explain why your husband jumps into the fun. It’s a language of sorts for boys; a way of saying “I like you” without overt vulnerability. In adolescence it can be a vehicle for establishing a social hierarchy. And it’s a natural form of bonding for fathers which is great because research shows us there are a lot of benefits to roughhousing. In fact, it’s especially good for a child to practice roughhousing with a parent who’s good at it so the child learns these life skills as well as how to roughhouse with friends.
So what exactly are the benefits of perfecting the Peter Parker or leaping like a flying squirrel off the couch onto your brother’s back? Physical fitness (strength, coordination, body control, flexibility, agility, quickness, complex motor learning, and cardio), emotional intelligence (reading social cues, being tuned in to your partner’s emotional state, regulating your own emotions and actions in response), social skills (teamwork, trust, leadership, negotiation, setting and following rules, good-natured competition), intelligence (anticipating moves, faking someone out, creating new moves), and energy discharge. It also teaches that there is more to physical contact than sex and violence, that winning isn’t everything and there is strength in compassion, and it helps kids develop inner strength and physical confidence. Horseplay (particularly when done with a parent who is good at it) provides the endorphin rush of athletics with the oxytocin of loving touch. It also releases a chemical (BDNF) that stimulates neuron growth in the regions of the brain responsible for emotional memory, learning, language, and logic.
And let’s not forget the loving bonding that is forged between sparring partners in good roughhousing. Having fun is hugely important in developing a strong relationship with your child, so if this is what they love to do, figure out how to do it really well and jump into the fray!
Good horseplay starts with rules – spoken and unspoken, which means that people may need some time and assistance to understand them well. Skillful roughhousers know when to ramp it up and dial it down. They know exciting but safe moves. They’re willing to let the other person lead and take direction while working together to try a new move. They make sure that the other person is in the right frame of mind before initiating play, and they respect the other person’s right to stop at any time. It’s a good idea to have a code word since typical ones like “stop!” might be part of the game, especially if role-play is involved (eg. cops and robbers). The person with the physical advantage could self-handicap to make the play more even and fun for everybody. When roughhousing with your kids remember that their joints are prone to injuries so be gentle on those shoulders, and avoid roughhousing right before bed unless you want a late night TV buddy and the hairy eyeball from the other parent.
Parents need to be able to differentiate between horseplay, torment, and fighting. It’s not easy, especially for moms who didn’t grow up with brothers. One study showed that 8 and 11yo kids were able to tell the difference from videos 85% of the time. Adult men were right 70% of the time, as were women who grew up with brothers. Women who didn’t grow up with brothers thought all the videos were real fighting. Here are some key differences between horseplay and something more serious: in play, kids are smiling and having fun, taking turns, holding back in capability, and it often occurs with a group of boys who play together happily afterwards. In fights kids are crying or angry, trying to hurt each other, and usually involves only two kids who don’t want to play together afterwards. If you’re not sure which it is, ask “Are you having fun?” If one or both kids are having a hard time disengaging when they need to, a parent should intervene with a time out and cool down and afterwards help them talk about if they thought it was fun or scary or too rough, etc. Research shows that roughhousing doesn’t usually get out of hand. But sometimes a child does take it too far, and these kids often tend to struggle with self-control, emotion regulation, or can’t read others’ emotions accurately, and would benefit from coaching in those areas. In particular, young, hyperactive kids can develop more self-control through a lot of coached roughhousing with the parent gently and firmly dominating.
If you’re still not sold on roughhousing, consider this: studies of horseplay found that kids who do it more at home get better grades up to third grade and make better friends than those who don’t. Kids who roughhouse at home are less violent outside the home because they can differentiate between horseplay and aggression. Studies show that the more intelligent species and the most competitive societies engage in physical play in youth more than others do. Animals deprived of physical play tend to grow up to imagine physical threats where there are none. Lack of horseplay is linked to inadequate control of violent impulses in adulthood. Sold yet?
Make room (in your heart and your living room) for roughhousing because the more you allow it the less your kids will try to do it dangerously when you’re not around. Teach them horseplay skills to open them up to developing all those hugely important life skills. You will see bruises and scrapes and rug burns, but probably no one will lose an eye. (Probably.)