We Recommend Parenting — 09 September 2002
Boys & Rough Housing Play

Ask Kytka Archives: Is common rough housing play healthy?  September 9, 2002

In one of my Waldorf books I remember it mentioned that the common roughhousing play you see is really not a natural healthy thing. It is not productive. Actually I have noticed that that kind of play my girl goes for but it is an adult who instigates it. How much of this is ok? What about some suggestions for a 22 month old for exercise? And what is it that exactly constitutes roughhousing? Often what I do with her is chase and tickle, with some wrestling and flips and such….

I recently found a website about Family play which stated the following: “Roughhousing gives the child a chance to win. For a brief moment the child can dominate the adult. That is what makes roughhousing fun. It is a great way to even the score and to release tensions. What you are trying to provide is the taste of victory.” I found this quite disturbing and against the entire Waldorf philosophy because the adult is the model, and the child looks up to the adult. If the child win’s – even in this form of “play”, then what happens to the child’s ego and development?

From a Father and Child Reunion: “Ironically, roughhousing is one of the ways both assertiveness and empathy get transmitted to a child. These forms of play seem to improve child development in three major areas: the management of emotions, the development of intelligence and academic achievement. Let’s look at the management of emotions. A child not used to roughhousing will usually bite, kick and be physically violent when something doesn’t go the child’s way. Roughhousing creates an opportunity for the father to stop the playing, explain what is unacceptable and why. The child learns when “enough is enough,” or self control. The child has an incentive to learn because each time it does not, the playing stops.

The roughhousing seems to assist both girl and boy children to discover what they can achieve, which methods of assertion work, and how to deal with success and defeat – all of which are important components of identity, and prerequisites for success. The assertiveness is not learned from roughhousing alone, but by the enforcement of boundaries during the roughhousing. Dads and moms both set boundaries with their children. Dads tend to enforce them more. Getting the child to treat boundaries seriously also seems to create empathy. Teaching the child to treat boundaries seriously teaches the child to respect the rights and needs of others. Thinking of another’s needs creates empathy. A child who learns that consequences are always negotiable focuses on how to manipulate the best negotiation – or on its desires. One of the most powerful contributions many fathers make to their families is as a coach, or informal playmate/coach. The most important lessons seem to come from team sports – not gymnastics or tennis, but a sport in which almost every play requires cooperation to improve one’s chances of winning.”

Again, we see this outlined in the “benefits” from a very modern view, a view where the goal is winning and success – in a way which I feel is at the expense of the competitor. It’s the whole “The one with the most toys wins” scenario. At least that is how I see it.

Yes, for little toddlers gentle knee bounces, tickling, etc. are part of finger games and fun, but when I hear “roughhousing” I get a mental picture of a dad playing too hard with a young child and the young child being overwhelmed and over stimulated as a result. There is so much violence in today’s world – in the media, in our neighborhoods and even in our schools. This can easily make our children feel frightened, unsafe and insecure.

And a good point: Who does make the rules and set the limits? What does constitute roughhousing? I have seem parents tickle their children where they have shouted “stop, stop” to the point of actual tears. What is funny or acceptable to one person, may be way over the line for another…. where do you stop? How do you know when to stop? And take note: roughhousing also tends to escalate – becoming teasing and is then often followed with feelings of real anger. What becomes of this anger? Does it turn into bullying, violence?

How can any of this be healthy?

I would suggest encouraging play which lowers the potential for roughhousing and raises the potential for functional, constructive, dramatic, and group play in pro-social terms! Parents should create an intriguing environment which guides the child(ren) in playing in a cooperative way, building community, working together and behaving in a civil and kind way to each other….The behaviors and relationships that emerge in the child’s play are VERY important to the growth of the child, therefore, pro-social, community building and kind interactions should be encouraged. The parent is the rule maker, the teacher and the guide and I would begin by not allowing, not encouraging roughhousing at home.

Frighteningly enough, as I was searching articles and resources on the web to help me in answering this question – I kept coming up with all sorts of wrestling sites. This, to me, was enough to see where the roughhousing is going! It also seemed linked to Attention Deficit Disorder and all sorts of children’s violence sites. When I worked at a Waldorf school, we never really had to deal with it because we had so much available for the children to do… therefore I think that roughhousing stems from an excess of energy and no productive place to put it. It’s always best to use energy in a positive way, and the sooner children learn this the better for them as individuals, as members of the community, as friends….

Finally, to answer your question about a 22 month old getting enough exercise: A child is in a state of constant movement. As long as you turn off the television set and have a few simple toys available, I am sure that your child will get all the exercise s/he needs! Spend time out of doors and allow your child to explore and climb and try out all of those newly developing muscles!

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