By the time you are old enough to read this letter, it will probably be absolutely no surprise to you to hear that one of my favourite things in the world is to roughhouse with laughing children. Wrestling, tickling, pillow fights, foam-sword duels, water-gun shootouts. I plan on filling your childhood with as much wind-you-up rough play as I can possibly manage. And not just because I love it, but because it is critically important for a young boy’s learning.
Roughhousing is one of the way fathers teach and nurture their children. Roughhousing is a way to help children laugh about their problems. It allows them to do battle with their parents and win once in awhile, so that they can feel less helpless growing up. It also lets them and their parents work out a few feelings of hurt and conflict in away that brings them closer together.
Roughhousing allows parents to set limits compassionately. If a child is misbehaving in a way that the parent has to stop, pulling them away with a wrestle, a tickle, and a playful scolding can let the child laugh about the feelings that they were trying to let out. After a few rounds of roughhousing, kids can bring the angry and hurt feelings that were pushing them to misbehave under control, and talk about them, rather than try to vent them with hitting, breaking, or spilling things.
It will also be the way I teach you how to command your emotions. In order for us to be master over our feelings, and choose them, rather than letting them push us around into dangerous and anti-social behaviour (that’s a few letters in the making!) you learn to vent them by getting exercise, having fun, or working things out safely first, and then talking things out or doing what you need to do to make problem inspiring the feelings to go away.
Rough play teaches you your physical limits – it lets you learn how to lay with others and not to hurt them. And in the process it teaches you a lot about empathy and other people’s limits, too. Boys with fathers (or other adults) who roughhouse are much better at understanding the feelings and boundaries of others.
Right now, there is a war on boyhood in schools. They are trying so hard to cram so much information into children that they push to have children sit still far longer than they are naturally meant to do. Boys learn, explore, and express by moving around, by playing and roughhousing, and that doesn’t mesh very well with the agenda of schools right now. They often will punish boys for getting up and moving around, even though the boy can barely contain his natural run-jump-throw energy. The exuberant play that is normal and natural to healthy boys can be a “disruption” in classrooms. School administrators like principals are also terrified that they will be accused of letting bullying slide, so that natural tendency to rough-and-tumble play that you need can get you into a lot of trouble. At the age that you will probably be reading this, that will be doubly true – young teen boys are dynamos of energy.
Because of this, I know you will occasionally have a hard time sitting still in school. I am going to have to work hard with you to make it possible for you to contain that energy, and to let it out when it is appropriate to do so. And that means I promise you that at every step of the way there will be water guns, foam-rubber swords, and backyard brawls when you need them – right up until you think you are too old for them…
…maybe even a little beyond then.
Whenever you need it, never hesitate to grab a rubber sword and shout “have at thee.” I will always do my best to rise to the challenge.
In laughter and bruises,
P.S. If it is still around, I suggest you read an old article from my professional blog, The Wild Man Project, on my experience of getting into a glorious roughhousing match with Aunt Jeanne’s son Liam and his best friend when they were little, to get a feel for how important this kind of play can be to a boy.