My Introduction to Roughhousing
My introduction to roughhousing probably started when I tried to bowl over my older brother when I was 9 or 10. That didn’t go so well for me. Through the years of our youth, my brother, 2 years my senior, and I would continue wrestling each other in episodes sparked by…complete randomness. By random, I mean it
was never sparked by the need for retribution or to seek punishment for some wrong committed by the other. That fraternal judicial system was a completely different one that involved a warning and a punch in the arm. And the punch in the arm always followed the warning because any younger brother worth his salt never heeds the warning! Roughhousing, on the other hand, isn’t about anger or fighting.
So how or why do siblings end up rolling around on the floor so often?
If you do a quick google search for “why do kids wrestle”, you get several links about the benefits of play fighting, a book entitled, The Art of Roughhousing, and pleas from wrestling organizations to help keep the sport alive. If you’re feeling more zoological and you search for “why do animals wrestle” you’ll learn a little about professional wrestler and WWE Hall-of-Famer Road Warrior Animal, aka Joe Laurinaitis or the fact that the WWE has a Hall of Fame. In other words, there are not tons of people searching for why young kids, teenagers and even young adults spontaneously wrestle each other. It’s like we don’t care why it happens. We just want to know whether we should let it happen and when we should stop it. That’s the practicality of parenthood.
Play-Fighting or Serious Business – Hey there, Anthropology!
My own children’s roughhousing can sometimes look more like my two dogs going after each other (a 2.5 yr old female and a 10 mo old boy puppy). My dogs bear teeth, nip faces and legs and the older one will sometimes drag the puppy around by his collar. Yes!! This sounds a little more like my two boys! It’s a funny comparison but when our pets wrestling each other, we accept that they instinctually have to establish an alpha role. Do our kids need to do the same? As parents, that’s not an easy question to ask much less answer. Play fighting or roughhousing sounds innocent and developmental while establishing dominance seems callous and bullying.
Should we make room for the type of roughhousing that’s more Animal Planet and less Sprout?
Back to my web browser and focusing more anthropologically, I came across a study entitled “The Logic of Animal Conflict”, printed in 1973 in Nature and I’m thinking YES!
Indeed, you will read about intraspecies “limited war” in which winners “gain mates, dominance rights, desirable territory, or other advantages that will tend toward transmitting its genes to future generations at higher frequencies than the loser’s genes,” and I’m thinking YIKES!!
So now I’m backtracking and thinking that maybe my kids aren’t like my pets. We’re animals but we have frontal lobes. Plus the article doesn’t even broach the subject on humans because it’s purpose is to explore the evolutionary benefits of play-fighting to individuals and species and we’re a species of individuals undecided about evolution, but I digress.
Evolution or Egg Shells
Desirable territory? They chose their own bedrooms!!
Access to resources? Steak dinners and ample closets!!
Dominance rights? We love our kids equally!!
One of those needs isn’t like the others. As parents, we remove the need for our children to define their territory by giving them their own spaces, especially when they’re being particularly annoying. We provide food and clothing until our fashion choices for them become socially unacceptable.
However, we don’t help our children establish dominance. In fact we do and say whatever we can to discourage this. We assure our children that they are all equal in abilities and when age and experience surface to the contrary, we explore and highlight enough variety in abilities to balance the equation so that no one is better or worse than anyone else when considering the sum of everything. Parents are the ultimate spin doctors.
Unlike our animal counterparts who seemingly don’t have feelings, us human parents cringe a little when our kids broach activities meant to establish dominance or bragging rights with sports or martial arts maybe being an exception. We move quickly to hedge against any gains or losses that one achieves over another. The problem is this: We can hedge and protect and insulate all we want, but our children will still constantly one up each other. Evolution for the win!
What Establishing Dominance Looks Like
Poking, pushing, bumping or otherwise taking up the other person’s space.
- Where we see this: The backseat. It’s mandatory for rides over 10 minutes
- Parent will say: “Keep your hands and feet to yourself!”
- Ability to stop: That’s not a serious question, is it?
Quizzing each other on math, or sports factoids or Greek mythology – whatever subject one is sure that the other doesn’t know.
- Where we see this: Dinner table
- Parent will say: “You’re both smart in different ways!”
- Ability to stop: Fairly easy, but why would you? You’re learning so much.
The scrum that looks like someone is going to injured at any moment.
- Where we see this: Any open space inside or outside.
- Parent will say: “watch it, stop it, careful, get off your brother, someone is going to get hurt!”
- Ability to stop: Only if you witness desire to harm, but by then it’s a matter of seconds before someone starts crying and it’s over anyway.
Roughhousing in Action
On a recent trip to New Orleans, my Father-In-Law and I took my two 10-year old boys to Audubon Park for some exercise. We brought a spongy football with us. Before we got out of the parking lot, a silly toss towards the backside of one of my sons turned into “lets peg each other”. The ball and the tosses weren’t dangerous, no one was getting hurt and there was equal give and take until….
My younger son (younger by 8 months) felt a little picked on. He was losing this subtle form of roughhousing so he started hiding behind trees. Part not wanting the game to be over and part sensing an opportunity, my older son gave chase, still playing peg. Soon afterwards there was some de-escalation typical of roughhousing dynamics until….
The younger son rushes at the older one and jumps on him. No anger, tears or yelling. Just the younger determined to get the older onto the ground. Within 10 seconds, the younger was himself on his back with my older son walking away. The score: 0 people hurt to 1 point made.
And then the Younger decided to keep at it!
Charge! Grab! Tug! Get dumped on the ground! Charge! Grab! Etc!
The pattern repeated until the score was about 0 to 5 and it was time to step in. Frustration was setting in as the younger wasn’t getting the results he wanted. He tried a different tact: “Dad, Davis keeps throwing me to the ground!” Knowing that Patrick (the younger) responds really well to logic, I tried “This seems like your own doing. If you don’t want Davis to drop you on the ground, you probably shouldn’t jump on him.”
And here is really where it turned from family sitcom to nature documentary:
After several seconds when I thought tensions were eased…
Charge! Grab! Get dumped on the ground!
Patrick rushed again at Davis and once again found himself among the dirt and leaves.
Now, if my boys were my pet dogs, this would have ended with them drinking out of the same water bowl and taking a nap together on the couch. Still a funny comparison, but my dogs don’t have feelings – or at least human feelings so it takes a little longer for my sons to reconcile.
But since I didn’t step in, blame Davis for Patrick’s dirty knees, face and back and since I didn’t otherwise reestablish equality between them, Patrick’s only recourse (in his own mind) was exasperation and a declaration of his exit from our family as he turned and walked away. He had initiated all of the action but he had trouble dealing with the outcomes.
Don’t Stop Wrestling, Learn From It
Replaying this in my head while I walked after my kid, my mission became clear. It wasn’t the wrestling that was the problem; it was Patrick’s (and Davis’s) ability or inability to learn from it.
It took almost 9/10th of a mile walk with Patrick to convince him of the same. Back at the house and after some decompression, we had a family huddle (my wife, the kids and I) so that we could all process it together. As I remember, the family huddle interrupted the kids playing again, so there’s that.
My prevailing impressions during this entire episode were NOT of fighting, aggression or anger but rather of Patrick’s stubbornness and Davis’s restraint. It wasn’t harmful or scary for either Davis or Patrick. We specifically asked about feelings of fear. So no physical or mental scars and no relationship chasms had occurred. Responses from the boys to our questions in those 10 minutes were answered with about as much concern as if we had asked them their favorite colors. The just wanted to get back to playing.
The lasting reality in all of this is that our kids are constantly figuring out for themselves where they rate in this world. Roughhousing, wrestling, or otherwise establishing dominance are all just data points that help them make sense of who they are and where they stand with each other. They’re far less concerned about thir need to do this and far more concerned about what it means in the grand scheme of things. This is where we need to focus as parents. Any efforts by us shouldn’t be to quell these roughhousing or contradict the results, but rather to help our children process the information.
“Wow, you’re sister really kicked your butt but I still love you.”
Not exactly, but if we allow our kids to have these matches and we’re there for them to deal with the results, without contradicting the results; everyone will be better for it.
The Logic of Animal Conflict (1973). Nature. Vol 246