The rough play started in preschool. Suddenly, the playground seemed to be full of children play-fighting and shooting each other with imaginary guns. Then one day, my oldest son’s preschool teacher called us in for a little conference. It turned out that our darling was one of the ringleaders, eating his sandwiches into revolver-shaped chunks and slaughtering his cohorts around the lunch table. We assured her we had no video games, no guns of any kind, and never allowed violent play at home. And of course, our child would be appropriately admonished and instructed.
“Yes, I know,” she said calmly. “But I want you to think about allowing him some leeway for that kind of play.”
We were stunned. “You mean we should let him play with toy guns? Shoot at us?”
“Yes,” she said. Some room for expression that didn’t lead to physical harm, she explained, could be helpful.
My son’s interest in guns faded out, but a strange aggression and appetite for risk took hold of both our boys when they entered the teen years. Along with their friends, the rough play escalated. They started teasing and punching, leaping off rocks, and climbing up walls. My oldest, Ari, picked up his brother during horseplay and dropped him, breaking his arm—the second broken arm for that son. One night, a friend’s son sprayed a chemical into Ari’s eyes. And then there was the experiment with fireworks and Axe cologne in the living room.
Another day, my boys and their friends thought to throw a stick at a wasp’s nest and were, predictably, chased and stung. One boy was so infuriated that he returned the next day to do it again, to “get revenge.” Needless to say, this went badly—or really well, depending on your perspective. We quickly removed all the stingers, no one needed hospitalization, and all was calm a few ice packs and some Benadryl later.
Then my children began skateboarding and the injuries really started to pile up. Each incident fed my dark thoughts. A horrific crash reel starring my kids would run in my mind’s eye: the misplaced wrestling hold that results in a broken neck (which results in lifelong paralysis); the cars, zooming down my street, mowing down my children as they attempt new skateboard tricks (ending in death or lifelong paralysis); the fall from the roof, the tree, or the skateboard ramp (resulting in…you know).
“I’m not prepared for teenagers,” I said to my friend David one afternoon. We were bobbing around in our community pool, and I was watching my husband at one end of the pool, invoking his glory days as a gymnast by doing double flips off the diving board. At the other end, my two sons, along with other adolescents, were terrorizing each other with water guns. They had just engaged in a senseless, protracted argument with me about why it was important to aim for the eyes during water wars.
“It’s got to hurt,” they said, “or it isn’t any fun.”
“I just don’t understand this stage,” I told David, who was happily ensconced in the grade school years with his own gentle, violin-playing son. “Nothing in my experience has prepared me for this. I’ve got to try something different. I’ve got to calm them down.”
David is a good listener. He considered what I said, paused, and then spoke.
“One thing,” David said, “All you need. One word.”
I was intrigued. David is such a smart guy; I thought he might have some insight for me, some idea that could put it all in perspective.
“What’s that? What’s the word?”
“Yeah, medicate the kids. Funny.”
“No. Not the kids. You.”
He was right of course—not necessarily about the drugs, but about chilling out. Trying to get the kids to calm down, to refrain from rough play, was like trying to get my cats to heel. Relax, I told myself. They’re just active. What was my problem? My problem was that I came from a family of not terribly athletic men, gentle musicians who were more comfortable burping a baby than swinging a bat, and suddenly, I was spending a lot of time tending to injured people. During one spectacular two-week period, we had two broken bones, a mild concussion and a giant set of stitches. In the ER, waiting for someone to have a cast put on, a doctor stopped to chat. “Oh, you’re here with your family? But you work at the hospital, right?” Wrong.
What is it that leads to such physicality, such appetite for risk? It’s a pretty simple equation: athletic exuberance combined with excess energy plus testosterone minus prefrontal cortex. My husband is not only untroubled by all this activity, he even engages in it, play-fighting with the kids and injuring himself on a fairly regular basis while cycling. This is a guy who watches the FailArmy YouTube channel with the boys, which offers horrifying video compilations of various failed stunts, often resulting in serious injury. All I can think is that it’s giving them ideas, but he says it’s teaching them what not to do and, as a bonus, works their critical thinking skills as they discuss just what went wrong.
It’s impossible to stop my boys from doing most of what they want to do, so this actually started to make sense: Why not foster defense through preparation? So, I’ve lectured on protective gear. Ari has taken first aid training. The number of the ER is programmed into my phone, and I’ve learned about sprains and fractures, concussions, and compartment syndrome, and I can determine whether a gash needs stitches or glue. There’s a dedicated box for braces, slings, splints, and ace bandages. Ridiculously, we even own a set of crutches. The preparation for real outcomes seems, somehow, to prevent those other crash reels from playing in my head. Though I occasionally wish my boys were inside, practicing music, I’m finally able to allow them some leeway for what they clearly love, and perhaps need, to do.