3 Questions about Peer to Peer Roughhousing

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The Art of Roughhousing focuses on parent-child play, but lots of parents have questions about the rowdy physical activity that goes on between friends, siblings, and classmates.

Q: How can I get my twins to stop physically fighting all the time?

A: That’s a bit hard to answer without watching them “fight,” because the first issue is whether this is real fighting (angry, hurtful, unplayful, and out-for-blood), or whether it is playfighting (fun for both kids, less aggressive, ends with a shift to a different game), or whether it is rowdy roughhousing (active, noisy, and physical but not fighting or playfighting).

If it’s real fighting, then you need to work on their relationship with each other, by giving them each special one-on-one time with you, and by spending time with the two of them together, so that they can gang up on you (playfully) instead of attacking each other.

If it’s playfighting, then you need to let them play, and join in (if you can stand it!  I think you can.)  Siblings, especially, twins, need this kind of play in order to feel powerful and confident.  Twins tend to be pretty evenly matched, so they can really “go at it” without either one always winning–which is key to good peer roughhousing.  Of course, it’s possible for playfighting to result in a minor injury, or for one person to suddenly get mad at an accidental (or sort-of-accidental) escalation–but these problems are usually sorted out by the children themselves, or with big hugs and boo-boo kisses from mom or dad.  Finally, some parents describe their children as fighting when they are really just being physical at an intensity level that worries the parents, but it isn’t actually aggressive or pretend-aggressive.  These families need to apply the following principle:  We have to find something that works for everyone. That is, the level of excitement has to work for the kids, and the level of safety or rowdiness has to work for the parent.  The current situation isn’t working for this parent, and I’ d guess that “play nice” wouldn’t work for these twins.

When siblings are not evenly matched, and one is always clobbering the other, I like to say to the bigger or tougher one, “Hey, pick on someone your own size!” I say it in a goofy voice, and it works especially well if you put up your fists and then pretend to be afraid of the child and run away.  This always turns the problem behavior into giggles, which then lead to more peace and harmony at home.  It also helps to have separate wrestling time with each child, so the bigger one can go full-speed-ahead without being told to “be careful of your little sister!” and the little one can be the strong one for a change, knocking you over with one little push.

Q: Why do I need to roughhouse with my kids?  They roughhouse plenty with each other.

A: Because other children are not likely to follow some of the key guidelines to good roughhousing.  They usually don’t let each other win, but as a parent, your job is to hold back some of your strength and let them win (making them work harder and harder for it over time).  Other kids aren’t usually tuned in, like you can be, noticing whether a child needs a break, a quieter game, or an increase in intensity level.  When children roughhouse with each other they often escalate things, but if you are part of the game, you can call out “freeze!” every few mintues, which helps things from getting too wild.  Finally, the reason for you to roughhouse is for all the benefits to you.  Exercise without a trip to the gym,joy from uninhibited physical movement, creativity from making up new games, and most of all, a closer connection with your child.

Q: Shouldn’t schools just make a rule against all horseplay?  That way, no one will get hurt.

A: No! First of all, it won’t work, because this kind of play is universal and will still happen no matter what rules you make.  More importantly, roughhousing is not a bad thing, and maybe even worth the risk of some scrapes and bumps.  In a study of fifth-grade boys, for example, Anthony Pellegrini found that children who were best at playfighting were also best at solving complex social problems.  And children need to learn about healthy playful touch, so they won’t grow up thinking that the only forms of touch are sex and aggression.

Your job as a parent or teacher is not to protect every child from every scrape or hurt feeling.  But it is your job to comfort children when they are upset; to make sure one child isn’t consistently scapegoated or left out; and to help even the playing field for smaller, younger, weaker, or disabled children. You can help them define ground rules, pump up the energy with cheering and role-play (e.g., being a play by play announcer), or tone down the energy by having children take frequent breaks.  A longtime youth leader put it this way:

“Dealing with roughhousing among peers is a major challenge.  Since it continues in spite of our best interventions, we assume that it is an imperative of childhood. Children seem to need to touch each other, especially groups that are friends.  We work to keep the touching non-sexual, and such that children do not injure each other accidentally.  One strategy we use for dealing with the need to touch is to include it in our curriculum. Two coaches, whose specialty was teaching young children how to wrestle safely, told us what benefits could accrue to children who wrestled, especially young girls.  They told us the only equipment we would need were mats, what limits to set, and how to divide the children by size. Children love this activity. They are able to demonstrate strength and to make physical contact in an acceptable way.  In addition to regular wrestling, we sometimes use large bolsters with two handles that we call ‘pushers.’ The object is for two children to engage in a contest to see who can remain on a small wrestling mat longer.  They may only make contact pusher-against-pusher, and they can only push, not use the pushers to hit.”


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