When is Rough Play Healthy and When is it Aggression which Must be Addressed?

When is Rough Play Healthy and When is it Aggression which Must be Addressed?

When my son was in elementary school, he came home from the bus stop one afternoon with a bloody nose. It turned out that another boy at the bus stop had punched Jason and broke his nose. My immediate reaction was to find out who did this to my beautiful boy and sue that boy’s parents.

After thinking about this for a day and getting a second version of the story from another child who was at the bus stop, I changed my mind.

It seemed that Jason was not exactly an innocent bystander in this situation. He had made an offensive remark to the other boy and that boy took exception to what my son said  – and registered his complaint with his fists. As I thought about it, I knew this was a poor way for this other boy to respond. But I also knew that Jason also needed to learn to keep his mouth shut sometimes.

I realized that intervening was not going to help Jason learn how to get along with others. Nor could I go to the bus stop every day to protect him. He’d have to learn on his own. So I commiserated with Jason and he went back to school and the bus stop the next day. And that was the last time he ever got into a fight with anyone. Jason is now an adult who is very adept at using words and gets along well with everyone who meets him.

I’m frequently reminded of this incident when parents contact me about problems their children have at school. The tendency for many parents is to get involved – just as my first impulse was to do something about Jason getting punched. But I warn parents that while there are bullies in schools – and at bus stops – often when children get into altercations with others there’s not only two sides to the story but physical interactions between children are not only inevitable but are in many ways healthy.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where we’re all a bit overly sensitive to violence and any indications of aggression are immediately viewed as something to be stamped out – whether it is seen in our own child or in others. Schools administrators, who should know better, adopt zero tolerance policies and school staff – teachers and secretaries — often believe that any sign of aggression in children is a signal of psychological pathology.

But quite the opposite is true. And if we didn’t know this from our own experiences as children, we all should know this from the research that has accumulated over the past few decades. There is a difference between real aggression and aggressive bullying, both of which deserve our attention, and play that is rough and tumble.

Rough and tumble play usually involves running, tagging, pushing, chasing, wrestling – occasionally hitting. Aggressive play involves a serious intent to hurt another child (or animal) and is usually behavior that is truly violent. Violent and aggressive behavior is often found in children who do not connect or attach well with others.

On the other hand, the importance of rough and tumble play is that children learn self-regulation, setting limits for themselves, mastering their impulses, resolving conflicts in appropriate ways, and controlling aggression in play by trial and error over time.

Just as Jason learned a valuable lesson about social interaction, children who engage in rough and tumble play learn about the give-and-take of appropriate social interaction. In effect, through rougher play, kids become more adept at both signaling and detecting signals, which are social skills they will need and use throughout life.

Rough and tumble play supports cardiovascular health, but even more significantly it seems to actually bring about changes in the brain. Pellis and Pellis, Canadian neuroscientists, point out that play fighting in both children and animals can lead   to organizational changes in the brain, especially those areas involved in social behavior.

In other words, rough play in childhood provides children with the social knowledge needed for successful future relationships. And it’s our job to make sure that children have opportunities for rough and tumble play and not be so quick to label all rough play as aggressive behavior.

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