West Point Pillow Fight

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by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. and Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D.


Since 1897, incoming cadets at West Point Academy (known as plebes) have celebrated the completion of their intensive summer training with a free-for-all pillow fight. Who knew? Last week we learned that in this summer’s fight, instead of wearing helmets—as required because of injuries in past years—some cadets apparently put helmets and other hard objects inside of the pillows they were swinging. The result was violent mayhem. (


A tweet during the chaos from one cadet read, “CASUALTY UPDATE: 12 of my fellow classmates have been sent to the hospital from our plebe pillow fight. I am not even kidding . . .” Other cadets, including upperclassmen who were supervising the event, were quoted celebrating the violence. At the end of the fight, there were a total of thirty injuries reported, from concussions to broken limbs and dislocated shoulders.


It’s easy to chalk this incident up to a lapse in judgment by the young men and women involved, who are, after all, college students. It’s also easy to explain things away with words like “tradition,” and “esprit de corps,” as the Academy brass suggest. They have promised to investigate the cause of the injuries (though it doesn’t seem too complex to figure out that helmets in pillow cases are dangerous). But we believe there are some deeper currents underneath the surface of this pillow fight that got out of hand.


Over the past several years, we have spent time encouraging roughhousing or rough-and-tumble play. We advocate for things like pillow fights, wrestling, and mattress rafting down the stairs. It’s fun and promotes healthy social, emotional, and physical development. This may seem like a silly thing to spend time doing. But the truth is that in the past two decades, healthy physical play between adult and child or child and child has been sidelined by our society’s excessive preoccupation with safety. It is as if a nervous motto, “Safety Only,” has replaced the wise motto of “Safety First.” A very unfortunate turn of events if you ask us—because we know and science knows that when it comes to child development, playful roughhousing is tremendously beneficial.


Anthony Pellegrini, a psychologist who studies childhood play and the value of recess, found that children who roughhouse more are less violent than other children, have better friendships, and do better in school. This is because healthy roughhousing teaches that physical power is not power over someone else, but the power to do amazing things with your own body—like somersaults for young children or Parkour for older ones, and the power to do amazing things together—like horsey rides for young children or acroyoga moves for older (and more adventurous) ones. Of course, most schoolyards have a bully who pretends to be playing when he is really using play as a cover to hurt people. The children usually know the difference, but adults often get confused and try to ban all rough-and-tumble play, or all physical contact. This causes the distinction between play and violence to be blurred, as seemed to be the case at this year’s West Point pillow fight.


It turns out that our obsession with safety and mistrust of roughhousing has paradoxically made us less safe. When children don’t learn how to roughhouse in a playful way they can become reckless and overly aggressive. Children need to roughhouse early on with their parents, who can provide a role model for the stronger person holding back so that everyone has fun. What’s more, when parents roughhouse playfully with their young children, the message is that there is more to physical contact than sex and violence. Boys are especially in need of this knowledge, to counteract the media and social pressure to express their masculinity through sexuality and aggression.


The art of roughhousing is the art of physical, interactive, rowdy play—totally different from real violence. It promotes safety and adventure, competition and cooperation, strength and tenderness. We wonder whether the young adults at West Point learned these crucial lessons of healthy rough-and-tumble play. Hopefully, what happened won’t make young parents stow their pillows. Who knows, maybe some will be inspired to grab hold (by the zippered end!) and engage in a playful battle with their children, the right way

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