Your toddler jumps on you or their sibling wanting to wrestle. Maybe you’re annoyed. Maybe you think it’s hilarious. Maybe you just don’t know what to think.
Parents often wonder if this childhood desire to play fight is normal, safe, and appropriate for their child’s age — or for society’s expectations.
Play fighting has been a much-debated issue over the years because it can look rougher than it really is and can cause some adults to feel uncomfortable.
Will letting your toddlers roughhouse a bit cause them to hate each other when they are older? Will they get physically injured? Or are they performing a sort of bonding? All excellent questions, and ones we’ll address below.
Parents often call it play fighting, while
University of Arkansas experts define rough and tumble play as “wrestling, tickling, chasing, and being bounced, swung, or lifted.” In addition, they say it refers to “the vigorous types of behaviors, including some that may look like fighting, that occur in the context of play.”
They explain that it often looks aggressive and like misbehavior, so sometimes adults discourage it. However, it is an important aspect of healthy child development, and shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.
In true play fighting the participants are willingly participating for their own enjoyment, and there isn’t an intention to harm.
The founder of the National Institute for Play, Dr. Stuart Brown, suggests that the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, and that play can grow human talents and character across a lifetime.
This type of play typically begins around preschool age and continues into early adolescence. Boys, girls, moms, and dads can be a part of it, though traditionally dads have taken more of an active role than mothers in this aspect of child-rearing.
Play fighting is a phenomenon that naturally occurs in all cultures, and is often quite enjoyable for most kids. It may surprise parents who are watching their spouses and children roll around the floor wrestling, to know that they are actually building their brains and emotional well-being.
It’s also quite common, especially in young boys. Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore writes in Psychology Today that 60 percent of elementary boys say they have play fought, but it only accounts for about 1/10 of the time they spent playing overall.
She says these types of peer-to-peer play fights typically occur with a whole group of kids rather than just two kids (which is more typical of a “real” fight). “The appeal of rough play is the physical challenge of testing their strength and the exciting idea of being powerful,” Kennedy-Moore says. “…[it] often involves pretending to be superheroes or good guys and bad guys.”
It’s a normal, developmental stage for many children. While there are some kids who aren’t interested in this kind of play, those who do engage are not necessarily any more aggressive or a cause for concern. Many children simply respond to the physicality and role playing involved in play fighting.
So the next time your pretend Hulk is launching himself off of the couch onto his brother, know you aren’t alone.
It sure doesn’t look like it sometimes. But it’s true: This kind of play exercises the body and develops social skills.
Changing roles lead to problem-solving and self-correcting in order to remain in the activity, an essential life skill. Learning to react and change based on reactions of others will serve children in the classroom and the boardroom.
In addition, children “learn to show care and concern when a playmate falls and to express their thoughts to others in a game,” scientists explain.
While it looks like ER-potential risk sometimes, safe play fighting can actually be extremely beneficial to your child’s development, and also to the parent/child bond.
One benefit is bonding with the father in particular.
Another benefit is that it’s a safe environment in which young children can test the limits of aggression and dominance in a socially acceptable way to learn what’s okay and what isn’t.
Since each person is typically competing to show a “dominant position” over the other,
For example, this kind of play is a loving but very clear way of showing kids who is running the show. They demonstrate playful but aggressive behaviors but learn that they’re not the most powerful force in the game. This helps them develop self-regulation of these behaviors as well as the social boundaries of where they fit into the world.
So the next time you are tempted to yell “Aww, let him win!” think twice. The father dominating physically, within reason, matters. “Self-handicapping” to some extent is important too, so that the child feels they have a chance, and they can succeed. Just not every time.
It’s important to recognize, for both teachers and parents, what real fighting looks like versus play fighting. We’ve all seen a play fight get a little too physical, which can sometimes happen quickly and pose a danger to children.
For this reason, often preschool and primary teachers can’t allow any type of play fighting, even though the National Association for the Education of Young Children now recognizes play fighting as an acceptable behavior.
Kennedy-Moore says that “adults, especially women who aren’t personally familiar with rough play, often try to stop roughhousing because they don’t want anyone to get hurt.” She goes on to explain that research shows it really only goes on to “real” fighting 1 percent of the time, which is quite a low-risk activity.
Research notes that rough and tumble play could be allowed in moderation with monitoring for the child’s safety. Scientists also give clear guidelines on what constitutes rough play versus aggression. In play fighting scenarios:
- Children smile and laugh, rather than frown, stare, cry, or get red in the face.
- Children are willing and eager to join the play, rather than one child dominating all the others.
- Stronger or older participants may let the younger ones win, and children will keep coming back for more, rather than separating after each round.
- Contact is relatively gentle and playful instead of hard and harsh.
- Children alternate roles as opposed to a real fight where roles really don’t change much.
- Lots of children can participate in play fighting versus just two in a real fight.
- There are typically no spectators, versus a real fight that draws crowds.
A parent who is trying to play fight with their kid to build long-term skills and to bond should consider conveying several messages to their child, either verbally or nonverbally to set expectations.
Let them know you’re having just as much fun as they are, but also let them know that — while they’re free to test them — you’re the final say on the limits and the rules. These vibes and discussions help to set the tone for positive play fighting experiences.
The next time your kids launch into a wrestling match on the ground, looking like Simba and Nala wrestling around like young lion cubs, consider the benefits of roughhousing and play fighting.
The benefits of young children and their peers or parents engaging in some rough but safe play has a variety of benefits, from bonding to aggression management.
With proper precautions, such as a safe place to play, and both parties being aware and willing to stop if it starts to go too far, it can be extremely fun for your child.
Knowing the signs of casual play fighting versus a real fight between peers will help to keep things safe and enjoyable.