A Plea for Boyhood and Rough Play

by Celeste Brinson
Originally Published: 
A blonde boy, holding his hand up and touching his thumb with his middle finger

Boys will be boys.

As simple as that might sound, it is the utter truth. Boys and girls are not the same: not physically, not psychologically, not even spiritually. The spirit of a little boy is a burning desire to touch, build, fix, destruct, fight, and love. My son is a co-sleeping snuggle bug who loves fiercely. He often gifts me with pine cones and other treasures, and he wipes my tears when I cry. He’s a gentleman.

And, he’s a rough and tumble little boy. He likes to play with sticks and rocks and throw things and splash water and push and be pushed and chase and tag and flip and flop. He’s loud. Sometimes his dinosaur roar even scares the little ones. And I know how people feel about his behavior because I see the way they look at him and me: as though we are wild criminals who have fled from an asylum just to come bother their perfectly-behaved child. Like it or not, those perfectly-behaved children are most often little girls. Comparing a girl to a boy is like comparing an orange to a shoe. Just don’t. Save your time; there is absolutely no point.

I know that gender differences are a touchy subject, and I fully respect that there certainly can be a gray area. But there isn’t always a gray area. One of the most surprising parts of motherhood thus far has been the amount of apologizing I have to do for my son acting like a… boy.

I know that there is at least one mom reading this who has a very cautious, sensitive little boy; she’s probably rolling her eyes and muttering to herself about gender being taught. I know. I thought that too. And moms of daughters are reading and thinking that if I just knew how to effectively parent my son, he wouldn’t act that way. See, I thought some of those things myself, and sadly, I questioned the true nature of a boy.

I, too, am a girl. And some girls are rough and tumble, but I wasn’t one of them. I’m emotionally introverted and, as a child, was anxious and slightly shy. I can’t recall a single incident at a playground when I hit someone. So I used to stare at my son in complete disbelief and shame. I have watched him hit others in his attempts to play. He’s a rough tagger and tough with a pool noodle during a chase. I understand why people look at us and think there is something wrong with us.

A big part of that equation, in my opinion, is our society’s lack of acceptance of unstructured play, physical touch, and big body play. Children do not necessarily need or want to be an adult’s ‘arm’s distance away’ from other children. And the ones who do will typically walk away from that type of play. It is just as normal for my son to be rough and tumble as it is for your child not to be. Children are unique people, each and every one.

Two summers ago, we were invited to a sand and water party at an acquaintance’s house. Perfect, I thought. My then 2-year-old son can get messy and have a blast. There was only one other child there, a sweet little girl. While she made perfect little sand castles and sorted her toys by category, my son proceeded to sit in the water pail in his diaper and smash sand all over his body and face. The host was stunned and annoyed by his behavior and asked me if I wanted him playing that way.

When I looked over at my son, I saw the most joyful, fulfilled child I have ever seen (honest, it was moving), and I looked straight at her and said, “Yes, I do. That’s exactly what I want for him. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for him since the day he was born.” While she noted that he did seem happy, she complained about the clean-up (on their driveway — give me a break) and stared at my feral child in disbelief.

Since that day, I can’t help but wonder if rough and unrestricted play is simply inconvenient for adults. It’s true, it can be messy. And rough and tumble does need to be monitored to some degree. But are we restricting our children because of real beliefs about what good behavior should be, or because other kinds of behavior don’t fit neatly into our schedules? I studied Gender Studies and Child Development in college, and I’m concerned that our boys are suffering, because it’s in their nature to get loud and fast and messy. Girls, too, if you ask me. But girls are generally forgiven faster for hitting and other forms of rowdy behavior because it’s considered out of their nature (so it must have been provoked).

When we say things like “Hands off!” and “Quiet down!” to our boys, we are asking them to suppress something innate inside of them. When they attempt to roughhouse and get in trouble for even brushing past another child, we are telling them that they are wrong and bad. And while I fully agree that bullying is one of the worst qualities we can allow in a child, there is a HUGE difference between bullying and rough play, which is why it’s important that we learn and acknowledge the difference. Rough and tumble play is a critical part of a child’s development, and I stand strong that we need more of it, not less.

This post originally appeared on Indianapolis Moms Blog, part of City Moms Blog Network.

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