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The Art of Roughhousing

​​“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Does anyone really need permission to play? For a variety of reasons it doesn’t come naturally to everybody. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen have studied the benefits of parents roughhousing with their children, and present their findings in The Art of Roughhousing.

Roughhousing, to be clear, is: wrestling, pillow fights, jumping off beds, sliding down stairs, etc. And there is a philosophy behind all the horseplay.

Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination. Most important, roughhousing is rowdy, but not dangerous. With safety in mind, roughhousing releases the creative life force within each person, pushing us out of our inhibitions and inflexibilities.

Rowdy, physical, interactive play is by far the most common type of play in the animal kingdom. It occurs in every species of mammal and in many nonmammalian species as well. We’ve all seen videos of lion cubs wrestling, but you’d be amazed by the vast number of species that enjoy rowdy play—elephants, whales, even ants.

Play is good for you.

Play – especially active physical play, like roughhousing – makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likeable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful. … 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: honor, integrity, morality, kindness, and cooperation.

“Sadly,” DeBenedet writes, “roughhousing barely limps along on life support.”

What was once a motto of Safety First has evolved into a fretful new motto of Safety Only. Many parents are more frightened by skinned knees and bruised feelings than life’s real dangers: stifled creativity and listless apathy.

They present an endearing story that Stuart Brown tells in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul about an encounter between a sled dog and a hungry polar bear who become playmates.

Unfortunately, after a few days the polar bear gets hungry enough that his primal instinct kicks in and he eats the dog…but Brown writes, “rough-and-tumble play in animals and humans…is necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism.”

And to take it further, “Lack of experience with rough-and-tumble play hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses later in life.

It sounds like we should all consider taking roughhousing a bit more seriously.

“Active physical play is the best way for parents and children to build a strong, close, lasting bond.”

Surprisingly, this is not just for fathers and sons, but should include mothers and daughters as well.

…make sure your son knows that he has a secure home base and that he can always climb into your arms for a cuddle or a good cry if his body or his feelings get hurt. And make sure your daughter has a chance to test out her strength and power, so that she can step out into the world with confidence.

Perhaps this is all food for thought in the near constant helicopter-parent world we find ourselves in.