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Why I Let My Preschooler Hit Me

Photograph by Leah Campbell

Shortly after my daughter’s second birthday, the hitting began. I’m not just talking about a random swipe here and there. No, this kid was brutal. If she was upset about anything, for any reason, she was taking a swing—a hard one, and sometimes with objects in her hand.

It was my least favorite stage of parenting by far.

Eventually, we got the hitting under control. It turned out my daughter had some sensory processing issues, and being too young to really express what was going on, hitting became the way she voiced her discomfort. As soon as we started dealing with the sensory issues (and teaching her how to communicate the struggles she was having), the hitting stopped.

Until it started again.

RELATED: In Praise of Roughhousing

A few months ago, my daughter hit me for the first time in almost a year. It caught me by surprise, mostly because this hit was nothing like her previous attacks. This time, we had been rolling around on the floor, playing, tickling and laughing hysterically.

She hadn’t hit me because she was angry. She had hit me because she was caught up in a bit of roughhousing and, apparently, hitting had seemed like a logical part of that game.

The good news was, she hadn’t hit at full force—it was clear her intention had been to play, not to hurt. The bad news was, she had still hit me. And in the face no less.

I’m mostly convinced that I make mistakes as a parent every single day. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t one of them.

I immediately stood up and employed all the same old tricks for ending the hitting we had used before. “We don’t hit!” I said sternly, before walking to the other room and leaving her alone to think about what she had done.

But … something didn’t feel right about that. The reaction didn’t fit the crime. She hadn’t been trying to hurt me, she had just been trying to play.

Over the next few weeks, the theme continued. We would be laughing and wrestling, engaging in that roughhousing play I’m told fathers are so great at (and is apparently quite beneficial), she would hit, and I would immediately stand and end the game.

Except, the message wasn’t really getting through. And perhaps even more importantly, I wasn’t totally sure it should be.

I’ll be the first to admit that roughhousing does not come naturally to me. I’m the mom who would rather curl up in a chair and read my girl a book, or paint her nails, over rolling around on the floor and tossing her about. But I’m also a single mom, kind of committed to doing everything in my power to ensure my girl gets as much out of childhood as she would have gotten with both a mother and father in the picture. So some days, we wrestle. Because I distinctly remember that being something I loved about how my father played with me.

So then I started to wonder if maybe this hitting was different. She wasn’t hitting to be mean, or to hurt me, or even to make a point. She was hitting because she was getting caught up in the rough play and was kind of just taking it up a notch.

Was this normal? Where had she even learned it from?

I sat down and tried to talk to my girl one day about what was happening when she hit. The first thing I quickly realized was that she didn’t even think of what she was doing as hitting. “I bonk you, Mommy,” she said earnestly.

I have no idea where she got that concept from, but somehow, in her mind, she was equating this playful hitting with something else entirely … with “bonking” me in fun, not hitting me in anger.

I started to watch my friend’s husband’s playing with their kids. One thing was immediately very clear: Their version of roughhousing was far rougher than anything I was doing with my girl. These men I deeply respect as parents were truly tossing their kids around, and they were taking it even more than they were giving it, fielding punches, kicks and full body slams like it was part of their job.

Never once were they stopping the games to announce rules like “no hitting allowed.” These dads were in it for the full-contact sport of it all.

And I wondered if maybe, just maybe, watching them play was where my daughter had gotten the idea of “bonking.” Perhaps she was just trying to replicate with me some of what she was seeing her friends get from playing with their fathers.

That led me down a rabbit hole of research, where again and again I was coming across scientific evidence that this rough play is really beneficial to brain development and problem solving abilities. Kids who engage in rough play with their parents and siblings have a higher emotional intelligence and a stronger moral compass. They get along better with their peers and experience greater levels of joy.

My little girl doesn’t have a daddy who is rolling around on the floor with her, giving her those opportunities to play rough and not hold herself back. But she does have a mom who is trying.

When you think about it, that kind of makes sense. This type of physical play is so different from anything else they do in their day-to-day lives. So of course it facilitates different connections and activates different parts of the brain.

As the only child in a single parent home, the only person my girl is going to get that rough play with is me, which meant I needed to rethink the rules I was enforcing upon that time.

I realized my daughter really wasn’t hitting hard; she wasn’t trying to hurt me. No matter what I did—ending the game, fake crying, walking away—she was still so clearly craving this type of rough play that her attempts at “bonking” me continued.

Of course, whether she meant to hurt me or not, getting hit in the eye stings! So, I needed to lay some ground rules down. That was when we decided, together, that “bonking” could be allowed between the two of us, but only when we were playing, never in the face, and she was never allowed to “bonk” anyone else.

Ever since those rules were declared, she’s stuck to them completely.

Sometimes we’ll be wrestling now, and I’ll watch her stop what she’s doing, pull back, size up the situation, and then land a “bonk” squarely on my arm. She laughs maniacally when she does, so incredibly proud of herself for the hit. And I’m proud too, because it’s so clear she slowed herself down first to make sure she didn’t break the rules and to make sure she didn’t hit me in the face.

She’s not hitting her friends, and she’s not even hitting me outside of this rough play. But allowing that one break in our rules, giving her the opportunity to hit me in play, has delighted her to no end. Her favorite game right now, by far, is wrestling on the ground with mom.

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I'm not totally sure I'm doing any of this right. In fact, I’m mostly convinced that I make mistakes as a parent every single day. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t one of them.

My little girl doesn’t have a daddy who is rolling around on the floor with her, giving her those opportunities to play rough and not hold herself back. But she does have a mom who is trying. And who is starting to learn that not every rule is meant to be applied to every situation.

Sometimes, it’s OK to let your kid “bonk” you.

Just so long as you’re right there, ready to take them down in a fury of tickles as soon as they do.

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