Roughhousing- Is This A Good Way To Play?

June 14, 2011 · 18 comments

in Development


Hands of Love In “Peaceful Babies—Contented Mothers,” pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler asks us to consider the importance of the touch of our hands.

Hands continue the infant’s first connection to the world (outside of nursing). Hands pick her up, lay her down, wash and dress and maybe even feed her. How different it can be, what a different picture of the world an infant receives when quiet, patient, careful yet secure and resolute hands take care of her—and how different the world seems when hands are impatient, rough or hasty, unquiet and nervous. In the beginning,  hands are everything for an infant. The hands are the person, the world. The way we touch a child, lift and dress her is “us” more precisely, more characteristically than even our words, or smile, or glance. If, from the start, we handle an infant peacefully, patiently, and carefully, she will discover ever more joy in these activities, learning at the same time to trust us more and more and to take an increasing part in our work.

To me, this begs the question: Should tickling, play wrestling, tossing a baby into the air, swinging a toddler by the arms, pillow fights- all activities otherwise known as roughhousing- have a place in the relationship between an adult and young child? Many Dads routinely engage in this kind of play with their children, and will tell you it  is harmless fun, enjoyable for both adult and child, and that it is the way children naturally play. If you observe young animals at play, you will often see them tumbling together, and “play fighting.”

In fact, Dr. Larry Cohen, author of  The Playful Parent, and co-author of the new book, The Art of Roughhousing, contends that roughhousing is actually beneficial for both children and parents in many ways:

“Roughhousing activates many different parts of the body and the brain, from the amygdalae, which process emotions, and the cerebellum, which handles complex motor skills, to the prefrontal cortex, which makes high-level judgments. The result is that every roughhousing playtime is beneficial for body and brain as well as for the loftiest levels of the human spirit: social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism.”

In an interview with Megan Rosker (Let Children Play) Dr. Cohen says:

“I think that good quality roughhousing will make it more likely for a child to be kind and cooperative towards others, to be a good partner and parent, and to care about the community.  The reason I believe this is that good roughhousing builds closer parent-child bonds, promotes confidence and empowerment, and solves family problems and behavior problems that can interfere with the child’s unfolding development.”

Roseann Murphy of Little River School had this to say about roughhousing, in response to an article detailing  Why Dads Should Roughhouse With Their Kids :

“There are many different views when it comes to “roughhousing” Things I have observed over the years include…what looks like fun to the adult is not “fun” for the child. Tickling is an area of roughhousing that has to be handled with dignity and respect. “Play hitting or boxing” can cause some issues at school. If it is OK to hit Dad, why can’t I “play hit” my pal? Great area for conversation.”

There is always a size and power differential when adults are roughhousing with children, and I think it’s too easy for adults to miss the subtle cues very young children give, thus making it easy to cross the line from reciprocal to hurtful. Not to mention that young children are just learning about their own bodies, and their physical and emotional boundaries, and even when they may be begging for “more”, they might have had enough, or be vulnerable to injury.

Engaging in such vigorous adult/child play may not be offering a good model for children. If we want children to learn to respect their bodies, to be gentle and non-violent, and to respect other people’s bodies, shouldn’t we be modeling this gentleness at all times? I tend to think the younger the child, the more need for care and caution on the part of the adult.

Whenever I think of this kind of very physical play between parents and children, my mind flashes to an image of a video I first viewed when I was a student at RIE. In the video, a male adult is lifting a baby overhead again and again, while the camera shakes and blurs, representing what the baby might be seeing and experiencing.

A more recent image also comes to mind. J.’s Mom, Dad,  and I, were walking home from his sister’s school dance performance. J. (age 27 months) was walking between his parents, and they were each holding one of his hands. J. used his parent”s hands to gain leverage to swing himself a little bit between them, and they responded by lifting and swinging him higher. Each time they stopped, J. would beg, “Again? Again?” J. was laughing and clearly enjoying himself. Suddenly, laughter turned to tears as he yelped  in pain, and couldn’t be comforted. I immediately suspected a dislocated shoulder, as I’ve seen this type of injury more often than I would like to remember, over many years of caring for children. (An experienced  pediatrician can  pop the shoulder back into place, quickly relieving the pain.)

J. actually had what is referred to as nursemaid’s elbow.  His arm was hanging at an odd angle,  he was holding it close to his body, and it was immobile. It took two trips to the doctor that day to pop J.’s elbow back into place, because his regular pediatrician wasn’t available to see him the first time, and the younger, less experienced doctor thought she had fixed the problem, but hadn’t. Needless to say, this was a traumatic day for both J. and his parents (who are among the most gentle, kind people  I know). They were responding to J.’s request for this vigorous play, and felt horrible that they had inadvertently hurt him and caused him pain.

Some children seem to enjoy roughhousing with siblings or peers, and I think if all the children involved are having fun, and no one is getting hurt, this kind of play can be OK sometimes. (Many parents, especially Moms, are very uncomfortable allowing or witnessing this type of play fighting among children.)

Still, I  wonder if  it might be  healthier for adults  to offer children alternative ways to expend the energy and emotions that often lead to the desire to “tussle” with others. For instance, children can push, pull, carry, or punch sandbags, roll around on the floor with pillows, play chase, and tumble down hills. These activities are what Frances M. Carlson calls Big Body Play.

In her book, Carlson (like Cohen) argues that “boisterous, vigorous, and very physical play is essential to children’s development and learning.” She advocates including this type of play in all early childhood settings from infancy on, but as she presents it, the adult’s role is not to engage in rough play with children, so much as it is to create and allow opportunities for children to engage in such play with other children. The adult’s role becomes one of facilitator, instead of direct participant.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this somewhat controversial issue. Do you think  parents should roughhouse with their children? If so, when, how, and at what age should this kind of play occur? What benefits and drawbacks do you see to rough and tumble play between children and adults? Do you see the need for more opportunities for children to engage in very physical play with each other, or do you think adults should insist that children play “nicely”, or gently with each other at all times? Tell me what you think!



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Humbled Dad June 14, 2011

Great subject. As a new dad, my instinct was to instigate rough play, whether that meant throwing my baby into the air (she laughed, I swear!), or tickling. I suspect I was just anxious for SOME sort of meaningful interaction, and having grown up with 4 brothers, this sort of physical contact came naturally. When my first daughter was about 6 months, I realized I really didn’t want to have this relationship with her, that I could be more creative (and evolved) if I wanted interaction. So, my rule has generally been, I don’t interact physically unless the child initiates. If it is someone else’s child who has clearly been raised to believe rough-housing with adults is the way to please and get them laughing, I’ll quickly suggest some other form of fun. I will only add that with my two older daughters, rough-housing has not been a part of our relationship. When it comes to the youngest, a boy… well, he instigates, and instigates, and instigates. In his case, I feel the best I can do is help him learn limits and boundaries (mine are pretty narrow in my old age)…

Thanks for a wonderful topic.

Angelique June 14, 2011

Great Lisa, first of all I have to say that your articles are always so nice and clear to read and understand (especially for me, since I am not english). This topic touches me and also I struggle many times with the roughhousing at home and in my work when I move&play with the older kids. I see how breakfreeing it can be to let children become “rough” sometimes. Maybe I would call it ‘exploring without being limited by conditions from the outside world’, instead of the ‘rough and tumble play’. I am always excited to see how children can go inside of this game, and laugh from the bottom of their soul. Then I notice how much they have been holding back untill then, while I thought they were having a great time, haha. It takes trust that their unconsciousness, ’cause that is the level they are entering for my idea while being rough, understands what is happening. So that they can show respect or know when to “calm down” again. On the other side I am also a infant massage trainer, the place where hands meet skin, and skins (bodies) are for me – the outer manifestation of who we are. I have seen rough moms and dads and it would not be my way, but the kids seemed to be used to it. It looked as if they were already in synch with each other and found their way in this tougher kind of talking and playing. Then I take a deep breath and turn away from my own expectations!

Last I can say that my child adores the rough play, BUT only with a man. Not with me. Do you think there is a difference between girls and boys, I wonder? She is climbing, jumping, pushing my partner a big part of the day, while with me she does everything besides the tough play.

A bit of my reflections on your wonderful theme and article Lisa! Looking forward to the others to respond and learn more myself.

janetlansbury June 14, 2011

Lisa, thanks for bringing up a great discussion topic and I appreciate all the interesting perspectives. (I will add to my hubby Humbled Dad’s comment that even before I met Magda Gerber, our baby would have been thrown in the air over my dead body. Either he’s exaggerating or I didn’t know about it!)

I’m in agreement with you, Magda Gerber and Roseann Murphy on this. It’s not that I think it’s impossible to roughhouse with a toddler respectfully, but as you say Lisa, “it’s too easy for adults to miss the subtle cues very young children give, thus making it easy to cross the line from reciprocal to hurtful.” The ability to walk this line is ADVANCED child care and most of us coudn’t pull it off. I worry that by suggesting to parents that roughhousing is positive, we’re opening the door to more abuse.

Roseann Murphy/LittleRiverSchool June 14, 2011

Lisa, beautifully written article. I think that the words of Emmi Pikler say it all. I don’t think the words “respect” and “roughhousing” can be used in the same sentence. The line is crossed so easily when rough and tumble play between adults and children are “playing” in this manner. There is no way for the child to have an equal part in this sort of play. I love play…I love to see adults interacting with children while at play….hide and seek… peek-a-boo….hide the penny….catch me…all those games are harmless…when we begin throwing, tossing, tickling – there enters another dimension. I will comment more…but I just returned from the dentist…and I want to make sure I am very clear….One other quick thing…when I responded to the NYT’s article about the newest book and workshop on Roughhousing…I mentioned how cyclical fads can be…as 25 or so years ago, a colleague of mine, Rick Porter of UCLA Child Care Services based his curriculum on Roughhousing…the subject brought on a great deal of controversy back then as well!

clara June 14, 2011

I never roughhoused with my boys, and my husband didn’t either (although everything I read suggests that this is non-typical for dads) … last year my oldest, at 4 years, started wanting to wrestle with everyone. There is a neighbour boy who is a much-practiced roughhouser, and a year older than my son, and I watched them very carefully and made sure it was consensual. Stop means stop. We say that a lot in my house.

Of course, my younger son who is now 3, wants to wrestle with his big brother. Again, we lay down the rules and make sure everyone is having fun. They are very like puppies. But I don’t like wrestling or roughhousing, as a parent, because more is at stake. I feel that my 5 year old is wrestling with me for ‘more’ than fun. He wants to win. He wants control. He wants to beat me… all natural ‘separation’ stuff at this age I think, but I would rather deal with it with words, rather than setting the tone of “you can wrestle me into submission.” I think when a kid wrestles with a parent, it’s about dominance, not about fun or exercise. (this is true of the boys as siblings, too, but they are on far more equal turf as 22 months apart brothers…the mom/kid relationship is much more charged.)

I am aware that at this age, kids pull away and start to move on to school, peer relationships. I think my boy still wants the love and cuddles (his younger brother is very affectionate) but doesn’t know how to initiate physical contact. Wrestling is a way of getting close. I offer lots of hugs instead. And lots of pillows to beat on.

Love the look of the blog, Lisa, I haven’t been here since you redesigned it. Thanks for an interesting article!

Melissa (Confessions of a Dr.Mom) June 16, 2011

Very interesting and complex topic Lisa. I do think there is a distinct difference between adult/child roughhousing and child/child roughhousing. That being said, I’m not entirely comfortable with it either way.

My son loves to wrestle, tickle, and chase. However, I often find myself cutting it off after a couple of minutes, as I see how easily the participants can get carried away. I do see the value in free play, and some rough and tumble. However, I also think teaching our children respect for their bodies as well as others is of utmost importance. It’s a fine line.

Something I’ve recently been telling my son “it’s okay to have fun and goof around with your friends, however, that does not mean hurting each other”. I think they need to realize the difference. Jumping, falling on the ground, playing tag…is okay, as long as everyone is having fun.

Great post Lisa.

Phil July 16, 2012

Something I came across in a book by Steve Bidulph made a lot of sense to me. He says how important play fighting is for a child’s development, particularly a boy. As you’re “roughousing,” a small child will invariably get carried away and hurt you. He suggests that is the perfect opportunity to pause the play and calmly explain that it is easy to hurt each other but that isn’t the purpose of playing (I’m sure he phrased it much better) and that you can continue only if that is understood. Reinforced, this will serve a boy well in adulthood as he will very likely be larger and stronger than his partner and it is important that he be able to experience strong emotions without ever using physical strength to dominate or hurt.

Lisa July 16, 2012

Hmm… Interesting. But I’m not sure it’s entirely true. I wonder if children, both boys and girls can’t learn this same lesson from being treated and “handled” with gentleness and respect from the time they are infants, and from being stopped as toddlers when they experiment and sometimes naturally overstep boundaries (hitting, kicking, etc.)? I don’t think “play fighting” necessarily has to be a part of learning to experience strong emotions without dominating or hurting another. All children do experience strong emotions, and the social learning becomes how does one go about expressing those emotions without hurting themselves or anyone else? There are lots and lots of ways for children to “get out” or “work out” big emotions either through vigorous play (running, climbing, jumping, kicking balls, punching a punching bag, pushing or carrying heavy objects) or through channeling those emotions through calming, creative means (water, painting, clay, etc.). I recognize that some young children will engage in rough and tumble play with each other, and I tend not to intervene as long as both children are enjoying themselves and no one is getting hurt,but I still see no need for adults to ever engage in “play fighting” with children- the risk is not so much that the child will hurt or overpower the adult,but the opposite, and I believe the younger the child, the more true this is. If you’ve got to go to a class to learn how to safely rough house with a child, then maybe it’s something that isn’t such a great idea in the first place?

ivyroze August 8, 2013

Roughhousing is great for a form of interaction, but should be limited to the age when the child has developed the ability to turn it on and off. Toddlers are to young and will tend to play to roughly with other children. At this age they are learning how to play and share with others and will misconstruge when and with whom to apply this form of play. Age 4 or 5 is around the time our children comprehend a little more, and boys have learned (hopefully) they should not jump on the back of a girl to ride her like a horse or wrestle and pin her to the ground.
I do agree that play-hitting between toddlers and adults will promote aggression and cause problems in school..
I would like to suggest a few activities such as, playing with cars, trucks, train tracks (my grand loves this), digging in dirt, building with blocks, a game of chase -me- chase-you, hide-and-seek, can you see me under the blanket and pretend cooking, ect will be plenty to keep you and your little-one busy.
Fathers, give your little-ones some time to develop and leave the roughhousing until latter.

Martha June 19, 2015

I found you article very interesting as I was telling my brother that his playing with his 3 year old was kind of rough. They loved to play superhero battles and I see my nephew being kind of aggressive at times. Do you think too much play fight can create aggressive behavior?, I was just thinking.
With my own 2 year old I keep roughhousing at a minimum if he asks for it, we really try to play other activities that can replace that.


Kay September 3, 2016

This is a fantastic topic. Thank you all for the wonderful insight. I have had a great deal of trouble lately with my toddler (girl) and rough-housing with Dad. The Behavioral Specialist, said there is new research that rough-housing is actually healthy. And, that we needed to teach her when/where she can rough-house and when/where she can’t rough-house. When I googled this topic almost every link led to “Rough-housing is healthy and you can buy a book to teach you how to rough-house”. Wild play, excitement, chase, hide-and-seek… are all great. However, I think we need to be very careful and responsible with the topic of “rough-housing” because of the impact it can have on children. First off, “rough-housing” can mean many things. However, play that involves physical dominance by an adult, play hitting, slapping, kicking, stomping, head butting, body slamming… I think should be off limits. I am surprised that the pro-roughhousing articles I have read were not more responsible in setting these boundaries. At least in my experience, my super healthy and happy little girl has done all these things to other children starting at age 2 and has continued at age 3 and 1/2. This is obviously learned behavior and she has no other siblings. So I can only attribute this learned behavior to her rough-housing with Dad. As an only child, she desperately wants to make friends and always wants to play with other kids. She is truly joyful with other children and also extremely nurturing and compassionate. She is the first to say “are you okay” and offer a hug or pat on the back. I made sure to show her this compassion from the start so that she would learn to show this to others. Unfortunately, she has also learned that playtime is synonymous with violent playtime. This is directly affecting her ability to socialize and she is suffering the consequences with other kids and parents being upset with her behavior on a continual basis. Sadly, I think the Behavioral Specialist was wrong. Our daughter is too young to be taught when/where she can and can’t rough-house. At least it hasn’t worked yet in my situation. I prefer that she learned healthy socialization from the start. Now we will have to spend a great deal of time to undo something that was not useful for her to learn in the first place. Life is quite confusing enough for our little ones as it is.
In my personal experience. I had a Dad who liked to play/wrestle. He also tickled a lot and I would laugh out of control. I never let on that I hated the wrestling. It made me uncomfortable, anxious, and afraid that any second I was going to get seriously hurt. No one knew I hated it because I was laughing the whole time because I was also being tickled. I think I was too young to comprehend the concept of, this is my body, I can say no. Even if I did know the concept, I might have just played along because it was apparent to me this was important to Dad.
The human brain has very primitive parts and very evolved parts. Some of our instinctive behaviors help us while other primitive/ instinctive behaviors harm us. I agree with the previous posts that say manhandling / rough-housing do not belong in the same sentence as learning self respect.

sierra September 12, 2016

I have been looking up articles on rough housing all day since after my husband and I got into an argument over him hitting our 8 month old son in the head with a pillow (I say hit, more like bopping him) but his head goes side to side and i don’t like it. my son doesn’t seem to mind, he doesn’t cry but he looks bewildered at my husband. my husband didn’t grow up in the best situation as a child, didn’t have a father figure & an absent mother who had 5 other children that were younger than him. I had a totally opposite situation growing up, and although I remember me and my older two brothers constantly play fighting and wrestling, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t at 8 month’s old. my husband has said to me “I can’t wait til he’s just a little bigger and i can throw the leather pillow at his feet and knock his feet out from under him”…I’m not okay with this. I think there is definitely a point where it should be drawn. and with the tickling as well, I tell him that’s enough because my son tries to push, kick and hit to get away from the tickling. or tickling him right after he just woke up… sorry I’m venting… it bothers me so much it’s a divorce breaker for me.

Joanie November 4, 2016

I think that rough housing needs a time limit. I have two grandchildren, ages 3 1/2 and 6. As soon as my husband sees them he starts to chase them around the house, pick them up by the seat of their pants, tickle them, etc. It drives me crazy to the point that Inhave to leave the house. I’ve tried talking to him about this, but to no avail. We will be with them for Thanksgiving and I dread it because of this. Just wish I could get hi. To tone it down and actually have a conversation with them.

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