Roughhousing With Your Kids May be Just the Sort of Play They Need

by ParentCo. April 27, 2017

I love wrestling with my kids. Every night before bed, we pretend to be monsters, I pretend to eat them, my son tows me to his “lair” with his tow truck... our wrestling games have no end – and I love it. It is one of my favorite ways to bond with them. Still, I was surprised when I ran across research that touts all of these other benefits of “roughhousing” outside of the pure joy factor. According to "The Art of Roughhousing", by Anthony T. DeBenedet, MD and Lawrence J. Cohen, wrestling with your kids makes them, “smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.” Once I saw these authors’ claims, I knew I had to pick up the book. Here’s what the research says, as laid out in the book:

Wrestling makes them smarter

Wrestling with your kids releases a chemical in their brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). According to Margot Sunderland in The Science of Parenting, BDNF acts like a fertilizer for our brains that “helps stimulate neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus, both of which are vital to higher learning, memory, and advanced behavior such as language and logic.” Thus, when we wrestle with our kids, we are literally improving the makeup of their brain. Who knew? Psychologist Anthony Pellegrini – a giant in the field of play research – found that “how well and much engage in roughhousing predicts their first-grade achievement better than kindergarten test scores do.” Crazy, right?

Wrestling helps them cope with the unpredictable

Wrestling “makes their brains more behaviorally flexible and increases their learning capacities.” as Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce note in their book, "Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals". This makes sense to me. When I wrestle with my kids, I’m always changing things up. First, I’ll go for their legs. Then, I’ll go for their arms or I’ll hide in a new spot.

Wrestling helps improve their emotional intelligence

“In good roughhousing, you and your child practice revving up and calming down, which helps your child learn how to manage strong emotions.” I’ve seen this play out in our family. When it’s my son’s turn to be the monster and he fails to “get us” before we reach the safe zone, he just breaks down and cries sometimes. He is learning to cope with failure and with strong emotions in a safe environment.

Wrestling helps them develop social and problem-solving skills

Pellegrini interviewed students and found that wrestling “serves an important role in helping children develop social and problem-solving skills.” When my friends and I used to wrestle growing up, there’d be times where one of us would accidentally get hurt – like kicked in the face. Because it was all part of playing, we learned to keep our cool, to be socially adept at distinguishing “play from aggression.” Furthermore, Dr. Stuart Brown, also an expert on play, states that “lack of experience with rough-and-tumble play hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses later in life.”

Wrestling helps them stay physically fit

As evidenced by my kids’ sweat every night when we wrestle.

Wrestling makes them happy

In Affective Neuroscience, Ph.D. Jaak Panskepp found that, “when the play circuits of mammalian brains are activated, especially by roughhousing, the result is joy.” It is the reason why, “rats will learn a maze just for the chance to wrestle with other rats” even if there is no food at the end of the maze. My kids love to wrestle – and I do too. While the following benefits aren’t in "The Art of Roughhousing", my own anecdotal evidence suggests the following additional benefits:

Wrestling is good for the parent-child bond

It’s a unique and special way that I bond with my children.

Wrestling increases their tolerance for pain

When we wrestle, there are times when their arm or leg gets whacked a little harder than was intended. They learn that they can still operate full steam even if they get a little bit hurt.

Wrestling teaches them to share

Only one person can be the monster when we’re wrestling.

Wrestling teaches them boundaries

There are certain body parts that are off limit. It is a boundary my kids and I must respect, even when wrestling. If your husband (or wife) wrestles with your kids, thank them! After all, those broken vases and occasional injuries are at least resulting in some good for your kids.



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