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Why Boys Need Rough-and-Tumble Play

For some parents, their child’s first aggressive act is as unsettling for them as for the playmate or sibling who just got whacked in the head with a sippy cup. It can trigger shock and dismay: “I can’t believe Aiden just hit Abby!”—as well as suspicion and guilt: “Where could he have possibly learned that?”

According to recent studies in early childhood aggression, however, the most important question that parents can ask themselves is “How should we respond?” Since the 1960s, aggressive behavior in young children was thought to be acquired mainly through observation and imitation. Childhood roughhousing was therefore often discouraged because parents saw it as a behavioral precursor to hostility.

However, research over the last ten years has shown that aggression emerges naturally in children and diminishes as they learn how to express themselves appropriately. As psychologist Kate Keenan states in an article on the Excellence-earlychildhood.ca website, “One could argue that the reason most children do not develop problems with aggression is because they are presented with opportunities to experience intense negative emotions as infants, engage in aggression as toddlers, and are discouraged in various ways from repeating unacceptable behavior.” This means that the initial behavioral changes most beneficial to an aggressive toddler must be made by the parents themselves.

The Difference between Young Girls and Boys

In other words, Aiden needs his parents to teach him how physical play is different from aggression. While girls and boys are equally aggressive as toddlers, boys soon become more prone to physical aggression. In one study Keenan cites, three-year-old boys demonstrated twice as many hostile behaviors as girls.

Psychologist Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys, mentions several differences between the genders that suggest why rough-and-tumble play is necessary in the development of male children. Biologically, at around age four, boys experience an upward spike in testosterone levels for around a year. During this time they become interested in “action, heroics, adventures and vigorous play” and will thus need to be taught how to keep their sudden outpouring of playful aggression within the limits of fun.

However, this biological component doesn’t explain why boys at age three would demonstrate more aggression than girls. It could be the result of how boys and girls are treated differently socially, even at a very young age. For example, Biddulph notes that adults typically discipline boys more harshly, with mothers tending to hit boys harder and more often than they hit girls. He also mentions research showing that parents cuddle girl children much more, even as newborns, and that boy babies are spoken to less frequently.

Keenan also cites evidence of how girl and boy children are treated differently. One study showed that mothers tended to discipline aggressive daughters by pointing out the consequences of their behavior on their peers, whereas mothers with aggressive boys tended to respond with punishment. In another study, “mothers of boys supported their own children in the context of peer conflicts three times as often as did the mothers of girls. Furthermore, mothers tended not to support their daughters when their rights of ownership had been violated.” Both a comparative lack of affectionate touch and more confrontational disciplinary techniques used for boys can have a significant effect on how they learn to relate physically to other children in their early years.

The Difference between Aggression and Rough-and-Tumble Play

At this point, parents may well be asking how they can tell if their child is aggressive. Most definitions of aggression involve the traditional no-nos of kicking, hitting, and biting, but a widely accepted standard has not yet been established as to the frequency or intensity of such behavior. Keenan sums up this dilemma by noting that “many professionals are concerned about pathologizing (i.e., labeling as a disorder) behavior that is developmentally normal.”

The good news for parents is that toddlers’ occasional outbursts of anger and frustration don’t necessarily indicate a behavioral problem. They do, however, represent the potential for one if parents fail to guide their children toward socially appropriate responses to their feelings. As psychiatrist James M. Herzog explains in Sesameworkshop.org, “By the second birthday, children (and parents) should be able to recognize that getting angry from time to time is perfectly normal, and that there are good and bad ways of expressing this emotion.”

However, not all aggressive behavior in toddlers is the product of anger or frustration. In her book How to Get the Best from Your Children, Jo “Supernanny” Frost says that some of the violence that young children do is merely exploratory in nature. For example, often a young child “won’t know that kicking someone will hurt. It just seemed like a good idea for the nanosecond it flashed through his head.” Regardless of motive, however, if the behavior was bad, Frost stipulates that the child needs to be disciplined (her suggestion is the famous Naughty Step technique).

The difference between aggression and rough play in young children emerges in the fine and often-crossed line between play fighting and real fighting. Greg Uba, a former pre-kindergarten teacher and contributor to the website for the southern California childcare TV series A Place of Our Own, explains that the difference between the two types of fighting is something he can feel more than see: “Kids aren’t always smiling during rough and tumble play–sometimes they’re working hard to demonstrate their ability to be competent–but generally, it’s in the spirit of play. Aggression has a spirit of dominating and intimidation.”

The Benefits of Father-Son Roughhousing

Given the research evidence cited by Biddulph and Keenan, as well as Uba’s observations, it’s no wonder that recent studies show three- and four-year olds whose fathers play in a rough-and-tumble way with them (and provide firm discipline) are rated as more popular and less aggressive than their peers. These findings were related by Michael Durham in a March 2003 article in the London Times provocatively titled “Fighting Fathers Breed a Better Adjusted Child, Say Psychologists.”

It is important to note that Durham isn’t saying that all dads need to do to ensure well-adjusted kids is wrestle with them in the living room every so often. Rather, the research conclusions suggest that an effective fathering relationship with young children includes boisterous play.

Boys benefit from such play in several ways. First, Biddulph and Uba both point to the fact that it gives young boys a socially acceptable form of physical touch and closeness. Also, according to Biddulph, play fighting provides dads with a powerful way of teaching their sons the physical self-control they’ll need later as boyfriends, partners, and fathers themselves. Fathers can find the balance between their young sons enjoying themselves and getting frustrated or hurt by using rules for their sons (no punching, kicking, etc.) and by asking how they’re doing as their play-fighting progresses. By doing so, they model to their kids the fact that concern for others’ feelings can be maintained during physically engaging play.

Some outbursts of seething and tears are inevitable in daddy-son wrestling matches, and it’s important for fathers to remember that their sons aren’t learning aggressive behavior from them (unless they are, in fact, playing too rough); rather, they’re learning how to express their natural tendency toward aggression in socially acceptable ways. Boys like Aiden need parents to teach them through experience how aggression differs from enjoyable physical play. However, if Aiden’s parents respond to his sippy-cup strong-arm tactics by preventing him from roughhousing altogether, they may paradoxically increase his risk for later, more serious aggressive behavior by delaying his grasp of this critical difference.

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