Educational psychologist Jennifer StGeorge, a senior lecturer in family studies at Australia’s University of Newcastle, says play fighting actually helps kids develop.
Increasing amounts of research show that fathers’ involvement in children’s lives contributes to the child’s social, emotional and cognitive development; however, much of the evidence comes from fathers’ caregiving and object play.
StGeorge’s newest study in the journal Infant and Child Development. She watched 24 fathers first pretend-playing with their 4-year-olds using blocks and puppets, then playing physical games like Sock Wrestle.
StGeorge says. “Likely men’s preference to play physically in the rough-and-tumble competitive way is linked to evolution.”
- They get practice reading emotions. Playing with an obviously stronger but friendly opponent makes them exhilarated but wary. The role reversals involved with “competing” show them how to watch and react.
•They learn how to take risks in smart ways. “In fact, we found in an earlier study that lots of rough-and-tumble play was associated with less risk of injury for children,” StGeorge said “It may be that children learn to take healthy risks in this sort of play.”
•They get help managing their own strong impulses. Sure, when they get revved up or mad, they may want to hit or bite. In this kind of guided play, they quickly learn that’s not okay—and find better ways to respond.
•It’s a chance to cope with frustration and failure. You can “lose” in a safe play situation. That becomes another way to gain self-control.
•They practice social give-and-take. You say, “I’m gonna getcha!” I giggle and plan my next move. Kids learn about consequences, turn-taking, and problem-solving from these simple games. There’s some research that shows this is how boys, in particular, learn to communicate and get along with one another in important nonverbal ways.
•Best of all, they grow into well-adjusted people. Thanks to all of the above, kids’ social-emotional savvy gets fine-tuned. That makes them more likable. “The kids who have balanced and enjoyable play with dad are more popular,” StGeorge says.
“Some studies show kids are calmer and more ready for social play after a good rough-and-tumble,” she adds.
- Keep it fun. “Rough and tumble play by definition needs to be full of laughter, joy, and enjoyment,” StGeorge said“When one partner stops enjoying it, it’s no longer play but something else, and that’s likely to finish the play.”
•Be a good-natured loser. Even though he’s bigger, the smart parent doesn’t “win” physical games all the time. Give your kids the upper hand sometimes—they need practice being the strong one. But don’t give in every single time, either. That’s just boring to kids.
•Don’t be afraid to be goofy. Showing silliness and imagination is good.
•Pay attention to your child’s cues. Adjust what you’re doing as you go, so you can motivate her to stay engaged, and don’t let her get so frustrated or angry that she doesn’t want to play.
•Know when to rein it in. “The important thing is that dad maintains a sense of restraint in his own physical actions as well as for the child,” StGeorge says. Example: Setting limits and giving calming guidance like “Don’t hit me there” or “Not in the face.”
“The take-home message for both mum and dad is that it’s very unlikely that rough-and-tumble play ends in tears,” she adds. “Far more often, it’s helping build the bond between dad and child. I have good memories of my own father roughhousing with us!”
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