A plea for boys and roughhousing


April 22, 2019

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Mamas, do you ever look at your sweet, wild, energetic son(s) and think, whoo boy. How am I to raise this little warrior?

What am I going to teach him about his masculinity?  How can I foster his sense of discipline and self-mastery? How can I help him develop both strength and gentleness?

Most importantly, what concrete steps can I take now, in his toddler years to help make him a man of character?

The journey toward virtue is difficult, and the path will grow steep as our boys get older. But when they are little, the easiest first steps toward character development lie — believe it or not— in rough and tumble play.

Here’s what this looks like in our home: it begins with the jingling of house keys, a turning lock, and a resounding, “Hi family!” from dad as he walks through the door.

The kids gleefully shout “HI DAD!”, and in the same breath ask, “Can we play sharp-tooth attack??”

My husband obligingly stomps and growls. The kids roar and wrestle. My kids pin, push, and chase while making sure everyone is having a good time.

The easiest first steps toward character development lie — believe it or not— in rough and tumble play.

The rough and tumble play is like a choreographed dance, of sorts, in that mastery of the appropriate moves is a prerequisite for participation. In this “dance,” everyone is so joyful, so boisterous, and so exuberant.

Although my daughter always participates and can rally with the best of ‘em, this is a game my sons particularly crave.

I can hear the collective, “Wait, what? Doesn’t rough and tumble play boost the aggressiveness of boys? Shouldn’t we teach them to never hit, or be rough, or act powerful?”

Well, no.

In a conversation between professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson and Warren Farrell, author of The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, rough and tumble play is cited as integral to the development of children, namely boys.

According to Warren, our culture is setting up roadblocks to such development by propagating a harmful narrative that men at large are part of an oppressive, tyrannical patriarchy.

This “toxic masculinity” hypothesis gives rise to the idea that parents should nurture the feminine aspects of their son’s personality only, while fearing and shaming the naturally masculine qualities our boys present (32:35).

This has wrought a framework through which we view rough and tumble play as problematic. It’s assumed that rough play calcifies boys in their tendencies toward physical dominance and oppression (32:55).

Therefore, many modern households have a moratorium on fighting of any kind.

But this is a faulty narrative, and does boys a great disservice. Here’s why:

01. Roughhousing is essential to proper brain development.  

Roughhousing is rooted in a primary play circuit in our children’s brains—when activated, this aids in the development of their prefrontal cortex and drives their overall socialization (27:11).

Allowing this play-circuit to fire in youth is crucial. It’s essential to proper brain development, and that’s partly why it’s so fun: its intrinsic pleasure motivates children to engage in it because of its significant socio-biological function.

Children are hardwired for it, so to speak, because activating that play circuit leads to positive outcomes in their life (36).

In researching play, neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaan Panksepp noted that if juvenile male rats were deprived of opportunities for rough and tumble play, they presented symptoms of ADHD, and could be treated with Ritalin (28:49).  

Interestingly, Peterson further adds that depriving boys of rough play has the same effects that it does on rats: it makes them more distractible, more isolated, more addictive, and more prone to violence (52:41).

02. There’s a difference between assertiveness and aggression.

There is an extensive amount of neuroscientific research showing that physical, rough play facilitated by dad* produces boys who can more easily differentiate between assertiveness and aggression, and mitigate their inclinations appropriately (29:58).

*(I’m not talking about unsupervised toddler roughhousing here — we all know that leads to chaos a la Lord of the Flies in about three seconds flat. In order for rough and tumble play to be effective and safe, an adult has to serve as moderator and referee, especially in the toddler years.
Although Warren and Peterson’s discussion centers around how fathers operate as roughhousing facilitator and referee, if dad isn’t in the picture, uncles, grandfathers, or you, mama, can fill this role.)

Rough play teaches boys how physical interaction with others should take place within a very limited set of parameters. The parent doing the rough-housing can outline what kind of behavior is permitted and what is not (29:58). Things like poking eyes, kicking too hard, taking it “too far” in any way, for example, aren’t allowed, and result in the ending of the game.

This experience allows boys to realize that there is a difference between assertiveness and aggression.

Aggressiveness ends the game, while assertiveness keeps the fun going. So instead of squashing and shaming their inclination toward aggressiveness, roughhousing helps boys channel that inclination toward acceptable, productive, assertive behavior instead.   

This experience allows boys to realize that there is a difference between assertiveness and aggression.

When properly directed, assertiveness will help boys strive for greatness within the proper boundaries on the playground, in the classroom, on the sports field and in the workplace. And unlike aggression, assertiveness can also be channeled to help others succeed.   

03. Roughhousing is an important stepping stone to learning empathy.

In play fighting, no one player is more important than the other, and it is mutually beneficial to protect the weak. (38:37). If a boy fails to reroute an aggressive outburst toward an assertive move, and is too rough on his sibling, for instance, the father or other adult is there to teach a valuable lesson.

If dad stops the fun of the game, makes the transgressor look at and apologize to the sibling he hurt, he can teach his son about empathy (43:28).

Unlike aggression, assertiveness can also be channeled to help others succeed.  

The boys learn to respect the other players, and therefore maintain friends who want to play with them. They learn how to control their behavior so the fun can keep on keeping on. In this way, play fighting serves as the initial move toward establishing a moral ethic.

It is an amazing phenomenon to witness. I watched how my middle son tended to push the baby with too much force when playing, or take shots at his stronger sister when she wasn’t paying attention. He learned quickly that exerting power over the weak and unbridled aggression toward the strong got him benched by dad, and left him without willing playmates.

Because of roughhousing, he’s learning to moderate his physical interactions with the baby, and rescue his sister from dinosaur-dad.

Play fighting serves as the initial move toward establishing a moral ethic.

04. When these lessons aren’t learned through play, there are difficult real world consequences.

If we compare socialization to learning how to ride a bike, roughhousing is the training wheels. It provides a relatively low-consequence way for young boys in the home to practice being young men in the world. Rough play affords lessons in the motions, the balance, and the skills necessary proceed adeptly in social interactions.

In the hopes of taming the “toxic beast of masculinity”, so to speak, the increased feminization of young boys in society today is squashing their natural inclinations toward rambunctiousness.

In other words, we’re giving boys bikes without training wheels, and wondering why they’re faceplanting.

Rough play teaches the specific social skills necessary to master the next developmental steps. Failure to master the skills at the play level leads to failure in the next. And repeated failure can lead to rejection, social isolation, anger and shame (48:38).

We’re giving boys bikes without training wheels, and wondering why they’re faceplanting.

The world needs our sons; sons who understand the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness, and who possess empathy, discipline, and courage.

It needs men who have been taught that their masculinity is not a condition to suppress, but a gift to cultivate.

It needs men who know true masculinity is not toxic, and that it does not pollute our culture, but rather enhances goodness and protects the vulnerable.

So, mama, for your young boy who loves swords and fighting and superheroes and sharp-toothed dinosaurs—what can you do now to help him become a man capable of sacrifice, empathy, and self-control?

Let the wrestling match begin.

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