Roughhousing 101

Why kids love a playful tussle -- and when to blow the whistle.

Painful Problem?

My 2-year-old is a little "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, the old WrestleMania star. His hugs are tackles, and his love pats, enthusiastic slaps. I've comforted many a crying playmate after my gleeful son's rough antics got out of hand.

But I recently heard the mother of all roughhousing stories. Resting on the couch to alleviate morning sickness, Tammi Kapuscinski momentarily blacked out when her 1-year-old, Justin, slammed his forehead into her face. "He broke my nose!" says Kapuscinski, of Delaware City, Delaware, who now has a second young son.

While broken bones from horseplay may be rare, rough play by toddlers and babies is normal, experts say. For some kids, it's a natural expression of an inborn full-of-fire personality. For many -- especially, let's face it, boys -- it's a behavior learned from Dad or peers. Finally, for some, roughhousing offers a tactile stimulation they love.

"I don't think roughhousing itself indicates a problem," says Susan Isaacs Kohl, a preschool director in Lafayette, California, and author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari, 2004).

"Children just have to be taught that it's only okay in certain situations." And that rough play should only go so far: No one should get hurt. That's why a parental referee has to step in.

    Monkey See, Monkey Do

    A primary reason that kids tussle is that they see others do it. If a parent, sibling, or friend wrestles with a child, then the child is apt to think that wrestling is an expression of love, affection, or friendship. "I've seen many children who were conditioned to be aggressive by wrestling with their dads," Isaacs Kohl says.

    That doesn't surprise me -- my son, Zaki, learned how to leap off the couch before he could even walk, thanks to his daddy's coaching. That led to more advanced studies. "Tackle!" my husband would say with a laugh, and Zaki would fling himself at his daddy. Now, when he's with friends, Zaki typically starts some good-natured pushing, grabbing, and tackling.

    Likewise, Kapuscinski suspects her son learned head-butting through an affectionate tradition with his dad. Her husband would rest his forehead against Justin's and gaze into his eyes. It wasn't long before Justin was bashing his forehead against his father's in anticipation of the game.

    "Now Justin thinks he can roughhouse with everybody," Kapuscinski says.

    Bonding between father and child is healthy, even if it means some tussling, experts agree. But if you feel like Dad's antics are getting out of hand, tell him why. Share examples about how you've seen your child's learned-at-home roughhousing on play dates, and explain that you fear it could hurt his ability to make friends.

      Roles of TV & Gender

      TV Ups the Ante

      Kids also learn from what they see on television: Many studies have linked violent TV shows, including cartoons, to aggressive behavior. A typical example is Amy Campbell's son, Tyler, 5, of Coatesville, Pennsylvania. After watching Power Rangers, "he'll jump off furniture with high kicks in the air," she says.

      The simplest solution: Parents need to keep track of the television whenever it's on and should ban violent programs -- or at least pull the youngest kids out of the room -- so children aren't inspired to copy rowdy behavior.

        Is It a Boy Thing?

        Anecdotal evidence definitely says yes. Boys are more socially conditioned to play rough, says psychologist Jerry L. Wyckoff, PhD, coauthor of Getting Your Child from No to Yes Without Nagging, Bribing, or Threatening (Meadowbrook, 2004). But boys are also biologically ingrained to do so -- the hormone testosterone increases boys' propensity for aggression, making them more physically vigorous, irritable, and desirous of instant gratification. That doesn't mean that girls don't yank hair or delight in being swung around. But roughhousing, in general, is more noticeable in boys.

        Of course, even among boys, the love of rough play varies. Some are born with a more extroverted temperament, says Wyckoff. They need the energy release, plain and simple.

        "Children who are more comfortable responding to life through verbal or physical outbursts find rough-and-tumble play to be a normal part of their repertoire," Wyckoff says. "Conversely, a more reserved child may react to roughhousing with fear."

        If your son or daughter loves to be wild, your best hope lies in channeling that energy into active games, such as playing ball or with ride-on toys, says Isaacs Kohl. For their own sanity, parents must also set limits, such as allowing tumbling in the playroom but not in the dining room.

        Finally, provide outlets outside the home, whether it's a jungle gym in the backyard or organized activities such as swimming, gymnastics, soccer, or Tae Kwon Do.

          Kids Will Be Kids

          Finally, it's important to acknowledge that little kids haven't developed a sense of space and propriety enough to know how much touch is good or bad. That's why we have to teach them.

          "Toddlers may figure that if a light touch is good, then a hard touch is better," says Todd Pinsky, a father of two from Santa Cruz, California, and author of Homedaddy: Little White Lies and Other Tales from the Crib (Push Pull Press, 2003). That's why you might beep your baby's nose lightly, but she may squeeze yours until it hurts!

          More important than telling children to quit roughhousing is to show them how to act, such as saying, "gentle hands," while demonstrating how to pet a dog, Isaacs Kohl says. Parents must also teach children to respect friends who decide they've had enough rough play, and separate kids who refuse to comply.

          Just as important: Listen when your own offspring objects to your tickling or wrestling. "My daughters like pillow-fighting and getting tickled and tossed onto a bed and all that," Pinsky says. "But it's all about trust, because when they say 'stop,' I make sure I stop."

          Despite her injured nose, Kapuscinski believes roughhousing is "typical toddler behavior." But she now strongly discourages Justin's head-butting so he won't hurt himself. Other parents who are worried that roughhousing is going to result in a trip to the hospital can take heart: Teaching kids to play nicely takes time and effort, but with you as a consistent guide, they can all eventually learn to play by the rules.

          Dana DiFilippo is a writer in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Her 2-year-old son, Zaki, got a sister, Amalie, in October.

          Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2005.