My husband and I have distinctly different parenting styles. I am more focused on homework, life-skills, and chores. My husband is “the fun one” who does the funny voices when reading stories, builds all of the Lego, most of the forts, and he roughhouses.
I’m not a big fan of the rough play and wrestling, but I know its important bonding. I worry about sharp corners, scraped knees, and hurt feelings; pair this with a nearby hot cup of coffee, and I’m feeling all the stress. Most of the time the kids and dad are having a blast, and I’m the only one who’s on edge. On the rare occasion when it ends in tears, I have a mix of emotions. There is some amount of, ‘See I told you so!’ This comes out more than I’d like. Then there’s the other free-range, logical side that knows this play is how my kids will gain valuable lessons, even when I’m the one on the sidelines doctoring far more injury and illness-induced crying jags than dad.
Play-fighting is normal, and healthy, not just among humans, but among many animals and their kin. Educational psychologist Jennifer StGeorge confirms that “Rough and tumble play definitely doesn’t make kids more aggressive,” and adds that there are many social and emotional benefits from a type of play that researchers refer to as “big body contact.”
While I can hold my own in a tickle and a pillow fight, my kids actively seek dad out for this kind of play. According to the research from StGeorge, when kids play these types of games they learn to read emotions, take calculated risks, practice impulse control, learn to cope with both frustration and failure, and are growing into well-adjusted people. There’s also proof that the risk of someone getting hurt is far less than the overall benefit. Kids understand the difference between play fighting and real aggression; so it’s quite unusual for a play fight to evolve into a real altercation. Other benefits of this kind of play include a neuron boost for the developing brain, improved social connection, physical fitness, and straight out joy. Studies from advocators of school recess have also shown that children are more ready for calm, focused social play after some light-hearted roughhousing.
Last weekend, after an hour of rough play, my husband and daughter raced to our front door. While daddy called out, “I’m going to get there first,” my daughter lost focus and ran, head first, into the iron porch railing. While I comforted my crying daughter on our couch and she bled all over my shirt, I berated dad for too much rough play, even though I shouldn’t have. He felt bad enough without my input.
My kids have been roughhousing with their dad from the time they could crawl, and in five and a half years this is the first time anyone has received a visible injury, which after some ice and a little TLC is a small bruise above her lip that will be gone in a few days. Perhaps it’s time I stopped being a critic and cheered ringside, or at least bite my tongue and take my hot beverage into the other room.