On their hands and knees on a rug, a dad and his 4-year-old lunge after each other. The boy is trying mightily to pull off Dad’s socks—while Dad, in turn, dodges his son and grabs at his socks.
It’s Sock Wrestle time! The game is more than loud, wild fun. It’s also a brilliant display of social and emotional learning in action, says educational psychologist Jennifer StGeorge, a senior lecturer in family studies at Australia’s University of Newcastle.
Roughhousing can get a bad rap. It can look…dangerous. Out of control. Like someone’s gonna get hurt. So maybe, we think, we should nip it in the bud.
Get down and wrestle! We’re driven to do it—for good reason!
Young animals play-fight. Kids do it with one another. And what about when parents tussle with their kids?
A big win for kids, finds StGeorge’s newest study in the journal Infant and Child Development. She watched 24 fathers first pretend-playing with their 4-year-olds using blocks and puppets, then playing physical games like Sock Wrestle.
“Rough-and-tumble play definitely doesn’t make kids more aggressive,” StGeorge told me. “And it has lots of social and emotional benefits.”
She’s talking about the vigorous, tickling, wrestling, pretend-fighting kind of interactive play researchers call “big body contact.”
(Here’s another try-this-at-home game from the study: Get Up. Dad tries to get up off the floor while his kid tries to keep him down.)
Both parents play this way with their kids, obviously. But it’s a play style that fathers reallllly gravitate to, StGeorge says. “Likely men’s preference to play physically in the rough-and-tumble competitive way is linked to evolution,” she told me. It’s how men were socialized to show strength and learn to adapt to the world.
And now, here in the 21st century, they can’t seem to help it. It’s just soooo fun.
We probably evolved that way, in fact, because it does kids so much good.
What’s so great for kids about play-fighting?
StGeorge’s research dogpiles onto a body of other research showing the many ways roughhousing helps kids. (Both boys and girls like to play this way, though boys tend to do it more. It usually starts in late toddlerhood and peaks in the middle primary years.)
- They get practice reading emotions. Playing with an obviously stronger but friendly opponent makes them exhilarated but wary. The role reversals involved with “competing” show them how to watch and react.
- They learn how to take risks in smart ways. “In fact, we found in an earlier study that lots of rough-and-tumble play was associated with less risk of injury for children,” StGeorge told me. “It may be that children learn to take healthy risks in this sort of play.”
- They get help managing their own strong impulses. Sure, when they get revved up or mad, they may want to hit or bite. In this kind of guided play, they quickly learn that’s not okay—and find better ways to respond.
- It’s a chance to cope with frustration and failure. You can “lose” in a safe play situation. That becomes another way to gain self-control.
- They practice social give-and-take. You say, “I’m gonna getcha!” I giggle and plan my next move. Kids learn about consequences, turn-taking, and problem-solving from these simple games. There’s some research that shows this is how boys, in particular, learn to communicate and get along with one another in important nonverbal ways.
- Best of all, they grow into well-adjusted people. Thanks to all of the above, kids’ social-emotional savvy gets fine-tuned. That makes them more likable. “The kids who have balanced and enjoyable play with dad are more popular,” StGeorge says.
But wait, what about someone getting hurt?
“Certainly there’s always a risk that someone will get hurt,” StGeorge says. But her interview studies show that most parents are willing to include rough play, provided the parents stay in control. In short: All the benefits far outweigh the unlikely risks.
Nor should we worry that we’re encouraging little warmongers. “Studies show that children know the difference between play fighting and aggression, and rarely does play fighting develop into a real fight,” she told me. Research shows that dads who roughhouse with their kids in appropriate ways can teach them to regulate their aggression in healthy ways.
As for getting so revved up they’ll never calm down, there’s good news there too: “Some studies show kids are calmer and more ready for social play after a good rough-and-tumble,” she adds. (It’s one of the big arguments for preserving recess in schools, says play researcher Anthony Pellegrini.)
Horseplay made smarter
Earlier research by StGeorge and her Newcastle colleague Richard Fletcher explored some important elements in dads’ rough-and-tumble play style. Some insights to borrow:
- Keep it fun. “Rough and tumble play by definition needs to be full of laughter, joy, and enjoyment,” StGeorge told me. “When one partner stops enjoying it, it’s no longer play but something else, and that’s likely to finish the play.”
- Be a good-natured loser. Even though he’s bigger, the smart parent doesn’t “win” physical games all the time. Give your kids the upper hand sometimes—they need practice being the strong one. But don’t give in every single time, either. That’s just boring to kids.
- Don’t be afraid to be goofy. Showing silliness and imagination is good.
- Pay attention to your child’s cues. Adjust what you’re doing as you go, so you can motivate her to stay engaged, and don’t let her get so frustrated or angry that she doesn’t want to play.
- Know when to rein it in. “The important thing is that dad maintains a sense of restraint in his own physical actions as well as for the child,” StGeorge says. Example: Setting limits and giving calming guidance like “Don’t hit me there” or “Not in the face.”
“The take-home message for both mum and dad is that it’s very unlikely that rough-and-tumble play ends in tears,” she told me. “Far more often, it’s helping build the bond between dad and child. I have good memories of my own father roughhousing with us!”
Who’s up for a game of Sock Wrestle?