The Link Between Dads, Horseplay, and Social Skills

father and child roughhousing boxing

Play fighting, jumping, running, and innocent mischief can all be classified as ways fathers interact with their children. In today’s world of iPads and cellphones, it’s nice to see that many fathers and father figures still use roughhousing as the main type of play with their children. Child development experts agree that spending time with a father or father figure can teach children social skills and improve family relationships. However, how dads manage to do that has been widely unknown. Research now shows that a lot of this is due to the rough-and-tumble play that fathers often provide their kids with.

There are countless studies about the bond that exists between a mother and a child. So many in fact, that researchers can predict the results of these studies fairly easily. We are always hearing and reading about the benefits of a nurturing child-mother relationship, but there are few studies on the bond between fathers and their children, and the ones that have been performed haven’t always had predictable results. One common experiment known as “Strange Situation” had infants randomly separated from their mothers. Many infants immediately became upset, but were comforted at the sight of their mother upon her return. However, when researchers put dads through “Strange Situation,” the infants didn’t always have the same reaction to being separated from their fathers.

The “Strange Situation” experiment isn’t meant to downplay the importance of a father or father figure in a child’s life. On the contrary, researchers believe that it means that

children develop bonds with their fathers later in life, and these bonds instill different social skills that children do not necessarily learn from their mothers.

So, why is this the case? Well a big part of this is based on how father figures interact and play with their children. Men are more likely to roughhouse with their children and allow their children to explore and take risks. They like to wrestle and be more physical when they play, and children absolutely love it. Children are caught laughing, squealing with delight, and generally having a blast with Dad. They want to play-fight, run around the house, grab a pillow and chase their dad around, and explore their boundaries. Kids know that all they have to do is flash that mischievous smirk, grab a throw pillow, and their dads will know exactly what type of play they’re looking for. They just want some innocent yet dangerous fun, and they know they can find that with their dad.

It’s easy to assume that we should always be “safe” with our children and that rough play will only teach children to be aggressive or endanger them. While this is a concern, studies such as one performed at the University of Regensburg in Germany suggest that it actually has the opposite effect.

Roughhousing with fathers actually seems to decrease aggression and leads to better social skills later in life.

These children are likely to be more outgoing when they meet new people. Roughhousing also teaches children about setting limits and boundaries, while being safe when they play with others. Moreover, researchers state that allowing children to get minor injuries without endangering them can instill emotional intelligence. So teaching your child how to block a pretend kick is actually a good thing, as is teaching them to tap out during a playful leg lock. Children learn from it, and it allows them to recognize what type of play is okay and what’s not okay.

There is no question among researchers that roughhousing is good for a child’s development, and while most fathers and father figures understand that it’s okay to engage in a little fun rough-play, we want to encourage moms to do the same. Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University states, “If a mom does it, the children will learn the same thing.” Even for children with special needs, this kind of play can teach positive social skills and healthy ways to deal with aggression. A little horseplay is definitely a good thing!

Inspired by June 11th, 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger, “Roughhousing Lessons from Dad”.

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At Stanfield We Think You Should Know:

Teaching students relationship boundaries and the distinction between the levels of intimacy between different people is important for their development and well-being. Our CIRCLES curriculum is one of the top sellers in the nation and will help your students “see” social boundaries and learn how to TOUCH, TALK to, and TRUST people in their different social circles. Just because they can hug their dad tightly and trust them to always keep them safe, does not mean that they can do the same with their friend’s dad.


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