Why I Don't Stop My Boys From Roughhousing

by Rita Templeton
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Wham. My son has just been tackled from behind, a surprise ambush as he sat on the floor innocently watching TV. It’s his brother (in his underwear, which is the best kind of clothing to fight in – ask any professional wrestler). In the blink of an eye, there’s a blur of elbows and knees against a soundtrack of thumps and grunts, various body parts bouncing off the carpet.

Then, as quickly as it started and without a word exchanged, they’re watching TV. Both of them this time, side by side, like they weren’t just engaged in hand-to-hand combat two seconds ago.

This is why my living room has a lot of empty space in the center, why I keep all my furniture arranged against the perimeters, in a move that would draw a raised eyebrow from any design critic. Because there are very few things in life I’m absolutely sure of, but one of them is something that every mother of dudes knows: roughhousing is a thing that happens, every day, multiple times a day.

And if you don’t want your stuff messed up, or somebody getting stitches, you just keep it out of the way – because you’d have better luck coercing an octopus into footy pajamas than you would trying to keep your sons from knocking into stuff in the process of pummeling one another.

In my early years of motherhood, before four boys rendered me completely unflappable, I was one of those moms who would intervene at the first sign of rough play, worried that someone was going to get hurt or that this meant my kids were going to be bullies.

“Be nice!” I would say sternly – until I learned a surprising fundamental truth: to them, wrestling around is nice. There’s nothing malicious in it. And though I may not understand it, I have come to accept it as natural.

In over a decade of raising sons, I’ve seen not only my kids, but an endless stream of their peers, play this way. To be fair, not every boy is so physical; there’s a spectrum, and some boys (especially those who don’t have brothers, I find) aren’t as into being tossed around. Even one of my sons isn’t as physically expressive as his brothers. But for the most part, as weird and foreign as it may seem to those of us who can’t exactly relate, this is how they interact with one another. It’s how they bond.

If you can get past the urge to bubble wrap your little wrestlers, and everything around them, you realize there are a lot of benefits to this type of play. It’s good exercise and a great way to burn off excess energy, for starters, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Emotional intelligence improves with roughhousing; children practice revving up and calming down, which helps them learn how to manage strong emotions,” say physician Anthony DeBenedet and psychologist Lawrence Cohen in their book, The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It.

The book goes on to discuss a phenomenon called “self-handicapping,” wherein the bigger or stronger kid throttles back his full power because the intent isn’t to hurt his sparring buddy, or to win the match – it’s just to have fun. This is what makes roughhousing different from actual fighting: it comes from a different place. There’s no ill will or intent to harm involved.

Roughhousing teaches kids to pay attention to others’ responses, learning through body language and facial cues, and to quit immediately when they recognize signs of discomfort (or hear a flat-out “stop”). It hones their reflexes and heightens mental alertness as their brains go through the motions of anticipating their opponent’s next move and planning their own accordingly. And for boys, who don’t always express their affinity for one another in words, it can help cement relationships. Nothing says “I like you” like a good body slam, amiright?!

So yeah, the constant roughhousing may mean that my decorative items are at risk, but at least I know my kids aren’t – because when you really look at the motivation behind the action, it’s not an out-for-blood power struggle, it’s a beneficial pastime.

I may never fully grasp why an armpit to the face is so alluring to my boys, but given the positive effects, I’ll let it happen. Maybe I’ll just buy more couch pillows.