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In Praise of Roughhousing

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There comes a certain time of night when my kids (ages 3.5 and 5) each get a little gleam in their eyes, and I know it’s about to start. It’s in that twilight zone between dinner and bedtime that my kids rev up and start roughhousing. It starts with a few gentle tussles on the couch and amps up from there. Sometimes my husband joins in — hoisting each of them high in the air and plopping them on the soft couch cushions. They cry, “More! More! More!” Me? I stand a few feet away, begging, “Careful! Careful! Careful!”

No one’s ever listening to me.

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I don’t usually stop the rough play as long as (1) everyone is laughing, and (2) no one does anything malicious. They know I will shut down their wrestling in a hot second if either of them hits or kicks the other’s face or pulls hair. As long as they’re both smiling, however, I let them be physical.

As nervous as it makes me, especially as they grow older and stronger, I can see the benefits of their wrestling, and those far outweigh the anxiety I have about them breaking a lamp or knocking out some choppers. In fact, there are five major benefits to sibling roughhousing.

1. They’re working out aggression in a “playful” way. My kids spend a lot of time negotiating with their words, because that’s what they are taught to do at school and at home. However, for a few unbridled moments every night, they can test their strength through play and have a physical connection that is forbidden during other parts of the day.

2. They demonstrate their individual strengths. My daughter, the older of the two, is stronger and can more easily overpower her little brother. But little brother is both fast and fearless, a combination that has allowed him to best her more than once.

3. They get to practice empathy. As much as we try to caution against being “too” rough, sometimes boo boos happen. Okay, they happen every time. It's nothing more serious than a head bump against the bed frame or a finger jammed, but in those low stakes instances, my children get to feel the discomfort of having hurt someone they love. An injury also gives them a chance to hone their skills as comforting others.

4. They get to test their limits in a safe context. I’ve certainly made it clear that I’m not running a boxing ring, so my kids know that their physical rough housing has boundaries that I enforce. Therefore, they are free to experiment with tackling each other to understand their own limits and those of their sibling.

5. They’re rewiring their brains for learning. Perhaps best of all, allowing kids to roughhouse can boost their brains' ability to learn. Neuroscientists have found incidents of roughhousing releases a chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which increases neuron growth in the cortex and hippocampus, the areas of the brain responsible for memory, logic and higher learning.

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So, if you can stomach it, let them wrestle and test their limits. Just be sure they understand the ground rules and remain within them.

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