I often see my kids roughhousing, but instead of yelling, “Stop!” I allow it to continue.
According to the experts, roughhousing is actually good for kids in more ways than you might think.
“I have three boys and they definitely roughhouse,” says Sonia Nicolucci, a psychotherapist at Leaside Therapy Centre in Toronto. Her kids are 15, 13 and 10. “It creates a sense of belonging and bonding and also establishes a physical connection to one another.”
Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen, authors of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, even suggest that roughhousing “makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, loveable and likeable, ethical, physically fit and joyful.”
My brothers roughhoused when they were little. My kids often tussle on the carpet; I even roughhouse with them, but can all these claims be true?
Sonia is quick to explain, starting with a definition of roughhousing and some rules about how to roughhouse right.
“Roughhousing is different in tone and feel than fighting,” she says. “There is laughter, rules and playing.” Roughhousing can involve rolling around, wrestling and pushing. There is usually a giver and a receiver, and each participant takes turns changing roles. As soon as kids are strong enough, they may begin to roughhouse, especially if they are active. Typically, as toddlers, roughhousing is more gentle. As kids get older and stronger, it can become more physical. Not every family roughhouses.
“Sometimes family size and birth order matters,” says Sonia. “An only child might not like it or be used to it, whereas sometimes the youngest child in a big family will roughhouse at school and not realize that others might find it aggressive. It’s not gender-specific either; even girls roughhouse. It all really just depends on their family and their personality.”
Though some parents may worry that roughhousing promotes aggression in kids, it does have its benefits. “Roughhousing is a way for kids to connect and play together. It creates a sense of belonging, attachment, bonding and physical connection. When one sibling realizes they are suddenly stronger or bigger than before, it can even improve self-esteem.”
Roughhousing also teaches rules and boundaries. “If my boys are getting loud, I will walk by the room and say, ‘I feel like it’s getting aggressive in here. Is everything OK?’” says Sonia. “As a parent, I will have to listen: are they playing or is one trying to show their dominance? How are their facial expressions? Their vocabulary?”
When it seems to be more aggressive than playful, it may be a great teaching opportunity. “I will ask them to listen to one another and explain that no means no, even if there is laughter involved and they are getting mixed messages,” she says.
Even once you’ve stepped in to check whether your kids are playing by the rules, you’ve got to be creative in your approach. It’s important to be neutral and listen to both sides. You don’t want to reprimand one child rather than the other; kids might see this as taking sides or favouring one over the other, which could promote sibling rivalry.
“You don’t want one child to view himself as the bad one or to assume you love one more than another. Ask what happened as opposed to stepping in and being the ruler,” says Sonia.
Obey the roughhousing rules
- Each participant must take turns being the receiver and the giver.
- Participants should know when to stop. Pay attention to nonverbal signs, such as an angry expression or tears.
- Listen. No means no, even if the person saying it is laughing.
- Parents can step in if things are escalating. It’s important to be neutral so that you don’t come across as favouring one child over another and so that one child doesn’t feel like “the bad one.” First say: “It’s getting loud in here. How are you guys doing?” or “Are you still playing or has this turned into an argument?” Then sit back and hear from them both.
- Participate! It can create a sense of belonging, bonding and self esteem.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June 2015.