Father-child Rough and Tumble Play. Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

by John Hoffman

Much has been made of parenting differences between fathers and mothers.

“Mothers hold babies in close. Fathers hold them facing out into the world.”
“Moms say, ‘Don’t climb too high!’ Dads say ‘How high do you think you go?’”
“Mothers focus on security. Fathers encourage independence.”

I’ve heard all those points made at various times. And I understand where they come from. I’ve seen those differences in my own family and often wondered how important they were. Some people think dad/mom style differences are very important for children’s development. I’m not so sure. First of all, they don’t apply to all parents. I do not believe that a guy has to interact with his child in some sort of ideal male way in order to be a good father.

Rough n Tumble with Dad

Unfortunately – or maybe it’s fortunate – research can’t tell us much about the importance of dad/mom style differences, except in one area: rough tumble play (RTP). Fathers definitely wrestle and roll around with their kids more than moms. Some people believe that father-child RTP is good for kids. One Canadian researcher proposed that RTP comprises a new kind of attachment relationship – an idea that hasn’t really caught on as far as I can tell.

Another claim is that RTP teaches kids the limits of aggression. If that’s true, you should be able to show that kids who engage in RTP with their fathers are less aggressive in play with peers.

But actually, one Canadian study found that kids who did higher amounts of RTP with their dads were actually slightly more aggressive overall. Yikes! However, a subsequent study clarified things. It turns out that the important thing about RTP is not how much or how often, but how Dad handles it. According to another fairly recent Canadian study, RTP is not a negative influence when fathers play a sensitive leadership role where they set limits and regulate the flow of the play. In other words, Dad doesn’t let things get out of hand, keeps tabs on how his child is feeling and tones things down if the child gets too wound up or stops having fun. When dads in the research study played that leadership role, kids did not go on to show higher levels of aggression with their friends. But when fathers did not set limits on RTP – when they let kids be too rough or didn’t settle things down when necessary – high amounts of RTP were associated with more aggression with peers.

What does this boil down to for the average dad?

  • By all means wrestle and roll around with your kids (safely!) – if they like it and you like it. If neither of you are particularly comfortable with RTP, don’t feel you have to roughhouse in order to give your child some sort of quintessentially male parenting.
  • Lead by following. If you’re wrestling and rolling around with your kids, don’t let things get out of hand. Don’t let your child hurt you or be reckless. If he or she is getting too wound up, bring it down a few notches, take a break or switch to a quieter activity.

This type of sensitive leadership from parents, which actually applies to other aspects of parenting, is very important for teaching kids how to regulate their emotions and behaviour. When children are little they have very little ability to control their feelings and behaviour, so they need our help – lots of it. Children need the repeated experience of being “regulated” by people who love them before they can learn to do it themselves. RTP is one of many situations in which fathers can help children learn to manage their emotions and behaviour.

But my personal take is that the most important thing about RTP is that lots dads and kids like it, so it is a great way for them to enjoy being together. Being together in ways you and your kids enjoy is what makes father-child (and mother-child) relationships tick. And, if you want to be a good parent, it all starts (and continues) with a good relationship.

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