There are feet and elbows and squeals and shrieks, followed by laughing—lots of laughing—thumps and grunts. I watch, waiting for my youngest to smack his head on the coffee table or my oldest to sit a little too long on the middle one’s chest, worried that it’s not really fun until someone gets hurt.
I don’t know if it is amusement, amazement or annoyance I feel as I watch their dad in the middle of it all, tossing them around, spinning them and flipping them, altogether keeping the energy at a frenzy, sweating and panting right along. And I wonder who is having more fun?
To a mom, all the noise and pummeling can be more than a little bit alarming. But lots of research suggests that regular roughhousing sessions make for happier, more successful children.
In fact, in Top Dog, a book about the science of winning and losing, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that roughhousing can give your kids a competitive edge and help them learn to thrive in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world.
We know intuitively that something magical is going on when dad gets down on the floor and lets little ones give it to him. Even if we are more than a little uneasy with all the activity, somehow we know the special give and take that goes on is fundamental to how our kids relate to him.
But are we aware of how that relationship affects how our kids see the world and themselves in it, or that roughhousing can help protect against childhood depression?
Maybe if we understand that roughhousing is a good way for kids to release aggression, or that it teaches our kids how to set boundaries, we can relax and enjoy watching the show.
As moms, every fiber of our being has been devoted to nourishing, nurturing and protecting our babies from before that first beautiful cry was heard to those first wobbly steps and beyond. The journey has brought us closer and made us more connected and in tune with our children than we could have ever imagined.
The first few years, our children’s development requires more from us, with dads as active participants who, for the most part, follow our lead. But by nature, there comes a time and place where dads’ involvement and subsequent bond grows independently and quite importantly.
"A mother’s bond is established in infancy, and researchers believe that dad's bond is expressed a little later, when the father serves as a secure base allowing the child to explore and take risks," says University of Georgia researcher Geoffrey Brown, lead author of a 2012 study in the Journal of Family Psychology on fundamental questions about how fathers bond with children.
What is roughhousing?
Roughhousing is essentially mutual, aggressive, interactive, high-trust play in which no one is actually getting hurt. Kids feel more relaxed, connected, and happy after roughhousing. This is critical in establishing a deep and lasting bond with dads that lays the foundation for the part of their development that helps them function successfully in the world and pave the way for future generations’ success and happiness by properly socializing kids to be good parents themselves. The good news is that roughhousing comes in many shapes and sizes, so dads who are more adverse to the extreme physicality of many forms can easily find others that suit their style better.
Recent research has shown that roughhousing serves an evolutionary purpose. Unlike many other animals, humans need their fathers well beyond just the act of making the baby. Based on research by MacDonald and Parke, fathers play key roles in optimum development of psychological and emotional traits like empathy, emotional control and the ability to navigate complex social relationships.
"Perhaps out of worry for their kids' future financial security, dads across human cultures mostly focus on preparing children to compete within society. They give advice, encourage academic success and stress achievement," says David Geary of the University of Missouri and author of Male, Female: Evolution of Human Sex Differences.
By roughousing, dads "rile them up, almost to the point that they are going to snap, and then calm them down," explains Geary. "This pattern teaches kids to control their emotions—a trait that garners them popularity among superiors and peers," he said. "As adults, they are more likely to form secure relationships, achieve stable social standing and become able parents. In this sense, a father who takes care of his children also gives his grandchildren a leg up."
Science supports the need for this kind of activity.
"We know quite a lot about how important fathers are in general for a child's development," says Richard Fletcher, the leader of the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle in Australia (UON), in an interview on ABC News.
Though all the rolling around and noise on the floor may look like there’s just a lot of fun being had, Fletcher and UON researchers believe that the most important aspect of roughhousing is that it gives children "a sense of achievement when they 'defeat' a more powerful adult, building their self-confidence and concentration."
In their study, researchers watched film of 30 dads roughhousing with their kids. "When you look at fathers and their young children playing, you can see that for the child, it's not just a game. They obviously enjoy it and they're giggling, but when you watch the video, you can see that child is concentrating really hard. I think the excitement is related to the achievement that's involved," Fletcher says. "It's not about a spoiled child not wanting to lose, I think that child is really striving for the achievement of succeeding."
What it does to your child’s brain
There is a lot of science to reinforce the value of roughhousing. A lot of it can be tied to one salient fact: Roughhousing releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Based on research by the Child Mental Health Centre’s Margot Sutherland, when kids roughhouse, the brain recognizes this as a small stressor. As heart rate increases, the brain thinks they are fighting or fleeing some danger. To protect the brain from stress, BDNF is released, which repairs and protects the brain while improving it’s learning and memory capabilities. Stimulating neuron growth in the cortex-amygdala, cerebellum and hippocampus regions of the brain, BDNF is vitally important and responsible for the development of memory, higher learning and advanced behavior, such as language and logic–skills necessary for academic success. This growth underpins a myriad of benefits for our kids.
Why we roughhouse
Some parents worry that roughhousing teaches kids to be violent and impulsive. In their book, The Art of Roughhousing, Anthony DeBenedet and Larry Cohen claim instead that roughhousing “makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.”
Other studies have indicated that kids who aren’t allowed to roughhouse can develop inappropriate responses to aggression, imagining threats where none exist, according to research by Daniel Paquette, a Professor of Psychoeducation at the University of Montreal.
"Parent-child roughhousing enables kids to explore aggression within the context of an emotional bond. By practicing aggression in a safe environment as a kid, they learn to be comfortable with it and take more risks as an adult, whether it’s by standing up to a bullying colleague or asking for a raise. In particular, fathers play a critical role in helping kids develop these skills," he says.
In Paquette’s surveys of children’s behavior for the University of Montreal, kid-initiated roughhousing peaks at around three or four, but continues until about age 10. During that time, Psychologist Anthony Pellegrini has found that "the amount of roughhousing children engage in predicts their achievement in first grade better than their kindergarten test scores do."
Roughhousing is a fun and safe place to teach your kids that failure is often just a temporary state and that victory goes to the person who is resilient, sticks to it and learns from his mistakes.
As a parent, resilience and grit are two of the best things you can help your kids develop. "Since resilience is a key in developing children’s intelligence, resilient kids tend to see failure more as a challenge to overcome rather than an event that defines them. This sort of intellectual resilience helps ensure your children bounce back from bad grades and gives them the grit to keep trying until they’ve mastered a topic," says Pellegrini. The ability to bounce back from failures helps your kids face challenges and reach their full potential, living happier lives as adults.
Though on its surface it appears rather brutish, roughhousing is really quite sophisticated, requiring the coordination of three aspects of human intelligence: physical, social and cognitive. When in concert, these aspects provide the sweet notes of our kids’ lives, but when out of balance can make for some sad music.
10 ways kids benefit from roughhousing
1. It rewires the brain, making kids smarter.
Roughhousing requires our kids to adapt quickly to unpredictable situations. In his book, Wild Justice, evolutionary biologist, Marc Bekoff, says, "The unpredictable nature of roughhousing actually rewires a child’s brain by increasing the connections between neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn contributes to behavioral flexibility. Learning how to cope with sudden changes while roughhousing trains your kiddos to cope with unexpected bumps in the road when they’re out in the real world."
2. It teaches children about taking turns and cooperation.
Roughhousing teaches kids the concept of leadership and negotiation. Physical games require the give-and-take of negotiation to establish the rules upon which everyone needs to agree in order for all to have fun. This is excellent preparation for both professional success and committed relationships.
Roughhousing also requires taking turns with the dominant role. Whether you’re the wrestler or the wrestlee, everyone has to take turns in for the fun to continue. Kids don’t want to keep playing if they are constantly on the losing side.
3. It toughens kids up.
Occasional scuffs and scrapes are a byproduct of roughhousing and are bound to happen. Rather than coddle, dads tend to distract their kids from the pain with humor or some other task.
In a study of 32 subjects in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, researchers found that many fathers walk a fine line during roughousing between safety and risk, allowing children to get minor injuries without endangering them. Learning to deal with and manage minor discomforts while roughhousing can help kids handle the stresses they’ll encounter at school and work.
4. It teaches kids to take risks.
Beckoff states that roughhousing is good for learning because "it provides an opportunity for making mistakes without fear of punishment." And because "fathers play a particularly important role in the development of children's openness to the world," writes Paquette, "they also tend to encourage children to take risks, while at the same time ensuring [their] safety and security, thus permitting children to learn to be braver in unfamiliar situations, as well as to stand up for themselves."
5. It helps kids manage aggression.
Some parents fear that roughhousing will lead to aggression and that we should always be “safe” with our children. While this is a concern, studies perfomed at the University of Regensburg in Germany suggest that it actually has the opposite effect.
Children who roughhouse at home are less violent, presumably because they feel a strong connection with their fathers and because they learn the difference between healthy roughhousing and aggression. As psychologist John Snarey says in his research-turned-book, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation, "Children who roughhouse with their fathers... quickly learn that biting, kicking, and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable."
Girls have aggressive feelings, too, and few know how to deal with them. Roughhousing provides the same benefits to them as it does to boys. Occasionally, roughhousing can lead to tears—play may have activated feelings that needed to come out, and they are coming out in tears rather than laughter and body slams. It turns out that roughhousing can help "mean girls" access their feelings more directly, which cuts down on the meanness.
7. It increases social and emotional intelligence.
“The ability to differentiate between play and aggression translates into other social skills that require people to read and interpret social cues,” says Pellegrini. Kids need to learn when to stop. In a report published in Behavioral Neuroscience, Jennifer Mascaro and her colleagues at Emory University state that, "rough play mimics aggressive actions, and requires accurate reading of social cues to determine when the rough and tumble tickling or fighting has gone too far, or if someone is feeling hurt. That requires evaluating other people’s emotional state and determining when the feelings pass the threshold from fun and play to fear and anger."
Play expert and founder of The National Institute for Play, Dr. Stuart Brown, says that the “lack of experience with [roughhousing] hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery and has been linked with poor control of violent impulses later in life. When kids roughhouse they learn to tell the difference between play and actual aggression," making them more well-liked, compared to kids who have a hard time separating the two.
Moreover, kids learn how to regain self-control, which makes them more confident in their emotional lives.
8. It teaches kids about boundaries, ethics and morality.
When we roughhouse with our kids, they learn the difference between right and wrong and about the appropriate use of strength and power. Roughhousing also teaches children about setting limits and boundaries while being safe when they play with others.
In nature, self-handicapping is one of the most amazing illustrations of moral behavior in animal play. "When we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back. We teach them self-control, fairness, and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn’t everything and you don’t need to dominate all the time," say DeBenedet and Cohen.
According to Bekoff, this is moral behavior because the larger the animal cares more about both players having fun together than it does about winning. Kids learn that actual strength is showing compassion to those weaker than you.
9. It makes kids physically active and can protect them from depression.
"Being active, getting sweaty and roughhousing offer more than just physical health benefits. They also protect against depression," says Tonje Zahl, a Ph.D. candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and first author of the article on the study findings which were recently published in the February 2017 issue of Pediatrics.
Her new study supports that this kind of physical activity protects against depression. The researchers at the NTNU examined just under 800 children when they were six years old and conducted follow-up examinations with about 700 of them when they were eight and ten years old to see if they could find a correlation between physical activity and symptoms of depression. They found that the more the kids engaged in activity that caused them to sweat and pant, the less incidence there was of depression.
10. Roughhousing builds a better bond.
The rough play fathers engage in is just as important as the gentle mothering that mothers do. Roughhousing offers dads a chance to show physically their affection to their kids in a fun and playful manner. Throwing kids up in the air and catching them, or swinging them upside-down, builds kids’ trust in you—by taking part in somewhat risky activities with you, your kids learn that they can trust you to keep them safe. And as dads tumble around with kids, the closeness and physical activity release the parenting hormone, oxytocin, which boosts feelings of bonding and closeness.
It’s not just for dads and sons
Just as fathers can be super midnight soothers, mothers can be awesome roughhousers. This is especially important, since not all children have fathers. "If a mom does it, the child will learn the same thing," says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University. And moms who roughhouse with their kids give them a whole new set of behaviors to figure out and learn from.
All kids need loving physical contact, and both boys and girls need to get it from their fathers. In roughhousing, dads and kids get the endorphin rush of athletics as well as the oxytocin rush of a good hug, benefitting both the same way that the release of oxytocin does when a child is being comforted or is nursing.
Importantly, DeBenedet says roughhousing can benefit both genders, often in different ways. “For boys, it’s a way to learn physical interaction that isn’t violent or sexual. For girls, it’s finding a way to make sure their voice is heard.”
So, what can you do to remain sane while watching all of this go down?
- Be aware of the surroundings Keep your kids away from areas where they can get hurt. Also, keep in mind that a child’s joints are prone to injury when roughhousing.
- Watch for and respect clues Ensure that roughhousing has not gone too far and that everyone is still having fun.
- Don’t roughhouse right before bed Kids need some time right before bed to relax and ramp things down so they can get into sleep mode.
- Remember that roughhousing is for girls, too While boys are naturally prone to engage in roughhousing, make sure you don’t leave girls out of the fun. Studies show that girls who roughhouse with their fathers are more confident than girls who don’t. And some studies even indicate that roughhousing can prevent your little angel from being a mean girl that psychologically terrorizes other girls.
The Art of Roughhousing recommends specific things you can do with your kids while roughhousing, along with helpful illustrations showing you how to do them. Also, you can visit the website for additional roughhousing ideas.
In the end, roughhousing may be alarming but is truly necessary for proper development to take place—all that tumbling and tackling helps develop strength, flexibility and complex motor learning, in addition to concentration, cardiovascular fitness, and coordination. Additionally, tossing kids in the air and spinning them around provides early vestibular stimulation (the input that your body receives when you experience movement or gravity), which is important for balance and may be a building block for future athleticism.
And there is one more surprising bonus: Roughhousing makes parenting easier by providing a positive outlet for big feelings so they don’t get worked out in more problematic ways. If we use roughhousing to improve communication and to impart values that influence our children’s attitude at home, with peers and at school, we can learn how they react to success, failures and obstacles, and we can build a special bond to guide them through troubled times. We lay the groundwork to better our present mutual relationships and those relationships of generations to follow.