Rough Housing and Boys – Is it a Good Thing?

I’m thrilled to be Guest Blogging here on Field Notes from Fatherhood. I’ve been a follower of Matt’s since the first time he got Freshly Pressed, and eagerly anticipate seeing his posts and beautiful photos. I’m looking forward to seeing their new home and adventures in Spain. Matt doesn’t shy away from the controversial, so here’s my effort for FNFF!

Several weeks ago, my six and a half year old twin sons were playing in the lounge while I was in the next room. They were rough housing, but there was a lot of laughter and neither voice had that edge that all parents know means you should intervene now before things degenerate.

Next minute, there was a wail, and Conal came into the kitchen, blood pouring out of his mouth. I turned and looked, and thought “Oh great, another split lip.” Then he opened his hand and showed me his TOOTH!!! I have four older children as well, and thought I had seen everything, but this totally flummoxed me, and I stood there for a full five seconds thinking “What on earth am I supposed to do about this?” I applied a cold flannel, checked the tooth out (just one of his baby teeth fortunately) and as he slowly calmed down, got the story out of Zac.

“We were just playing,” he said, “and I knocked his tooth out on accident.”

“Yes,” replied I, “but HOW did you knock it out?”

“Well we were playing Ninjago, and so I tried some spinjitsu. It worked really well but my elbow ended up in Conal’s mouth.”

Conal the toothless wonder

Conal, the toothless wonder

I shook my head, laughed a bit, and thought “Boys will be boys and there was nothing in it.” Sure enough, it was a baby tooth, it had come out cleanly, and the emergency dentist seemed to think it wasn’t far off becoming wiggly on its own accord. He was probably right, as two weeks later Conal lost the other one completely naturally.

It was only later that I began to think that I was perhaps treating all this a bit lightly. If I’d had two daughters and one knocked the other’s tooth out, I suspect I would be horrified. Or if I heard another parent telling this story, wouldn’t I have been questioning some of their ethics? When did we, as reasonable parents, accept that boys should be more violent? I may even have been heard to glibly remark that I think boys and girls have different kinds of energy, and that boys do just need to expend energy by fighting with each other.

I should state a few other things up front. I have two daughters and four sons, ranging in age from 16 down to 6. They are all very different personalities. And I have to say, based on my (admittedly small) sample size, boys and girls in the main do seem to play differently. The boys have always been more physical in their play and even though we offered a wide range of toys (dolls, books, trains, trucks, diggers, colouring pencils, Lego, puzzles) to all and even though the children played with all of them, they did play differently. The girls loved to build track for the trains; the boys loved to push the trains around (and incidentally all the boys loved watching the wheels go round and round). The girls spent hours writing in journals; the boys building with blocks. You get the idea.

So back to rough housing. I’m generally a fan of this for boys and girls, and I regularly join in energetically. I think it teaches by example that you can play roughly without hurting someone or losing your temper. This is a great skill to learn. It teaches children what it feels like if someone knocks you over or crashes into you – very useful for sports later on, and our thinking is that if any of our kids are ever deliberately attacked, it may not be quite so shocking to them if they’ve had some rough housing in their lives.

Just sit still while I jump on top of you

Sit still while I jump on you, please

But is this a life lesson I should be teaching my children? And is it for the right reasons? We’ve encouraged our children to play sports, and the older four have each had at least two years of karate – again, working on the self-discipline and self-defense aspects. So surely this should cover the control issues?

That’s not enough for me. I’m a strong believer that life lessons should begin at home. Supervised rough play, in my opinion, helps children to learn to take a knock; to be gentle and most importantly, when to step away if their emotions start getting the better of them. Some of these things cannot be explained in words to a toddler and in this case, actions do speak louder.

I’ve seen this work in two different ways with my boys. The older two boys are two years apart in age, but the older one has always been very tall and sturdy and the younger one small and wiry. The older one has had a long road learning to control his emotions and temper his strength, where the younger one has always been a bit more temperate. As 4 and 2 year-olds, the younger boy had to exert all his strength to even come close to things being even and by the time the older boy had learnt some control (around age 8 or 9) the younger one knew exactly how strong he was and how to combat a bigger, stronger opponent. Nobody scares my younger son, even though at 12 he is still very small – he never lets this stop him! In fact, when he was 7, he stepped in when my older son was having some bully issues. He was totally fearless in the face of much older and larger children, and at least some of this I believe can be attributed to play fighting.

This same son is six years older than the twins, but not a lot bigger. He and Conal are very similar in temperament, and rough house all the time. We have almost never had any tears with this combination, and I’ve watched Conal leap into the fray, all elbows and knees, and pull himself up so that he doesn’t hurt his fellow combatants. That is impressive control for the 4 year old that he was at the time, and routinely continues today.

Zac is more like our older boy. More emotional, more hair trigger, and less able to control himself. Poor Conal KNOWS that it is play, and unless he is hurt badly (in which case he berserk rages – no idea where he gets that from!) sometimes comes off worst. Zac is still learning the distinction, but is getting better, helped by our 12 year old. Ciaran is able to rough house with Zac for half an hour at a time with no escalation or eruptions. I asked him how he did it one day, and he said he just watched Zac, and when he could see that he was starting to get worked up, he took the level of intensity down to give Zac a chance to carry on playing, but to find some calm in the moment. As far as I can see, that’s an awesome thing for a 12 year old to be able to do, but it’s also teaching my 6 year old some lessons in recognising his emotional state and acting accordingly.

So back to boys, and the whole question of us accepting a higher level of violence from them and thinking it’s normal and OK. I stick by my feeling that boys have a different kind of energy. I’m not saying that girls can’t, just that in the main, boys seem to have a need to burn off steam that girls don’t share.  They seem to generally play more roughly, to turn even the most innocent of playthings into guns and swords.

Given that this seems to be some kind of hardwired imperative in their systems, I can’t help but feel that doing some controlled rough play is a good thing for boys. I think the key point here is CONTROLLED. Seeing their parents and older siblings involved in the same rough play and displaying control is a good thing.  And of course this has to be done along with consistent messaging of “we keep our hands and feet to ourselves” “we are kind to others and to our animal friends”  “we love and support each other” and noting the distinction between rough play and actual fighting.

There are also rules, of course: No punching, kicking, biting, slapping, scratching, eye gouging, or use of weapons or explosives.

Am I happy that one of my children knocked the other one’s tooth out? Of course not. But am I happy that they are learning control at home in the safe family environment? Of course.

What do all of you, readers of Matt’s mighty Field Notes from Fatherhood blog, think? Do you let your kids rough house? Have you had some bad results, or do you think it is positive?

The DO really love each other

The DO really love each other

Thanks so much to Lisa over at Family Matters NZ for this excellent post on an interesting topic. Do have a look at her other work at Being Gluten Free in NZ and the Healthy Food Guide. Great work Lisa, and keep up the wonderful parenting!

14 thoughts on “Rough Housing and Boys – Is it a Good Thing?

  1. Thank you for this thought provoking post. In my experience I do believe girls and boys play slightly differently regardless of the fact that they have the same toys available to them. Of course there are always overlaps. My brother used to let us put eye make up on his very long eyelashes.. and I used to play wrestling with him. But even when still flat chested girls are at a disadvantage as at 8 or 9 I suddenly found myself completely lopsided. My mum rushed me to the doctor and the prescription? ‘No more horse playing with girls allowed’. Perhaps girls are just hardwired to know it is not sensible.. or perhaps one adult comment is enough to put them off!


  2. Agree that boys are wired differently.I am one of 4 boys and playfounght with all my older brothers particularly my next older brother. Never met a boy who did not like to playfight.
    I have two boys and the younger one is soft. However, he loves when I beat him up and throw him around – is always asking for it. Ain’t that sweet!


  3. I’m very impressed by Ciaran’s maturity.
    I value rough-housing too. I look on it as an opportunity for touch and find that it is self-regulating. As a teacher on duty in the playground, I feel the conflict between my own attitude and those of the school.


    • Thank you. I’m impressed by Ciaran every day! I’d like to take credit, but actually, he’s a great kid and he was born that way! It must be difficult in the playground, and of course with the higher number of children, it’s impossible to see everything that goes on and ensure it is done in the correct spirit. What is the school’s policy on hugging an upset child?


      • Tricky one. Hugging is out, even with littlies,I think technically one is not supposed to touch but a hand on them, say on an arm, in comfort is probably okay. I wouldn’t do more than that and if I was a male with middle or upper primary, perhaps not even that. There was sadness amongst the profession when the no-touching decree was given; sometimes a child just needs, as I say, a gentle hand.


  4. Pingback: Guest blogging over at Field Notes from Fatherhood | Family Matters

  5. Great post. You are right on, Lisa. I have three children and I believe all types of play, including “horse play”, teach necessary social skills for adulthood. Learning how to both give and get can only happen through experience…and if any accident does occur, they’ll learn how to deal with that, too. Life gets messy, better that we let our kids learn these lessons while they are young and we around to guide them.


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