Rough and Tumble Play: it’s a dad thing

by John Hoffman

Originally published August 1st, 2018

When my boys were little we used to play this game called “Over the Falls.” Well, it wasn’t exactly a game and it didn’t really have a name. It was just a wrestling and rolling around thing we did on “the big bed” (Mom and Dad’s bed).

We’d roll around in the blankets and pillows, the idea being that we were trying to push each other off the bed (over the waterfall). This was more gentle than it sounds. Obviously the kids couldn’t really throw me off the bed—unless I let them. And, obviously I needed to make sure that nobody got hurt.

So we’d just kind of roll around together. The kids would try to push me off. I’d pretend to try to push them off. There would be all kinds of excited squealing and roaring. I’d always end up half on and half off the bed for awhile, pretending to hang on for dear life. Eventually, I’d yell, “Over the falls!” I’d grab the kids and we’d all slide down to the floor, with my laughing kids on top of me.

My boys just loved this. I loved it too. It was our version of what psychologists call rough and tumble play (RTP). Some fatherhood pundits have tried to create a mystique around RTP. Some portray it almost as an essential aspect of father and child interaction. Some say it helps children, especially boys, learn to regulate their aggressive behaviour.

I’m sure there’s some truth in that. When you look around the animal kingdom, all kinds of young mammals (dogs, cats, bears, lions) play fight with each other. It’s part of the way they learn to use their bodies and learn how to read and give social signals.

With humans, rough play seems to be part of childhood socialization as well. But, in terms of RTP teaching the limits of aggression the research is actually mixed. Some studies have found that RTP reduces aggression in kids, but others have found it actually increases aggressive behaviour. The difference seems to be in how you do it.

One study found that frequent RTP increases kids’ aggressive behaviour, but only when the dad did not play leadership role in regulating the activity. Dads who regulate RTP would do things like set limits on how aggressive kids can be. They make sure it was fun and not overly competitive. And they’d watch for signs that children were getting over-excited or overwhelmed and they’d be able to bring kids back down to a calmer level if necessary. When dads played liked that, rough play did not increase aggression in kids. That’s the way most of the dads I’ve known do RTP with their kids.

So, in other words, wrestle away, but don’t forget to be the parent.

Having said that, I don’t want to overemphasize the stuff about RTP and aggression. I never set out to wrestle and roll around with my boys to teach them the limits of aggression. We did it because it was fun.

For me, by far the most important thing about dad-child RTP is that’s it’s a great way to enjoy time together and connect. RTP is a kind of play that most fathers are comfortable with and that most kids love. So it’s a great way to play together. And playing, research shows, is a central part of father-child relationships (more so than for moms, although, of course, moms play with kids too). Think of all the physical contact that takes place during play wrestling and rolling around. That’s connection, man!

But if rough and tumble play is not your thing, or your child doesn’t seem to like it, that’s OK. There are lots of other ways for dads and kids to play and connect. The key is finding things you and your kids enjoy doing together. Your child(ren) will help you figure it out.

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