Raising Healthy Boys Means Letting Them Run A Little Wild

Why Rough Play Is Good For Boys

Written by Julie Gillis for The Good Men Project

My boys were outside on an unseasonably warm January day. Both had on their Spartan warrior outfits and both were wielding shields and swords (mostly made from stray branches or old broom handles). I watched them as they battled it out, swinging at each other, rolling occasionally in the dirt, yelling old timey epithets at each other. Some wrestling began and the battle waged on. Suddenly, I heard an “Ow! That's not cool!” and a bit of real pain noise overtook the play. I poked my head outside and the older one apologized to the younger one.

“You all OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” the little one said.

“OK, just use your ‘for real no’ word when it gets too much.” And then I went back in to read.

I’ve been watching my kids play like this for a long time, both on their own and with other friends. When we have new friends over I often have everyone agree on some basic rough play ground rules, like the “for real no” phrase. I mean, if a Spartan warrior calls out "peanut butter!" really loudly, you can be sure they want the game to stop. Sometimes there are real fights that have broken out, but mostly things stop just before the danger zone, and even when it does get too rough, there are apologies and ways of making up for it.

More and more though, I’ve heard that parents don’t want their kids playing that roughly. They don't want them playing with fake guns (certainly a hot-button issue over the past few years with the gun deaths in our country) and swords. They want them to avoid things like climbing, leaping, biking, skateboarding, and so forth. Violence, injury, and the prevention of them, are a big deal in current America.

But might keeping our kids from rough and seemingly violent kinds of play be hurting them more than helping? Dr. Stuart Brown, the director of the National Institute of Play, thinks so. I recently came across an amazing podcast on On Being featuring his work. The podcast is here should you want to reference it, it’s fascinating.

According to its website, The National Institute for Play is a "non-profit public benefit corporation committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life."

I had no idea such a place existed and was so excited to learn of Dr. Brown. From his bio:

“Trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry and clinical research, he first discovered the importance of play by discerning its absence in a carefully studied group of homicidal young males, beginning with the University of Texas Tower mass murderer Charles Whitman. Over the course of his clinical career, he interviewed thousands of people to capture their play profiles. His cataloging of their profiles demonstrated the active presence of play in the accomplishments of the very successful and also identified negative consequences that inevitably accumulate in a play-deprived life.”

We live in a culture that celebrates efficiency, practicality and hard work. We don’t like time wasters or things that don’t seem like they have a purpose, but what Dr. Brown has discovered is that our very ability to create and innovate, characteristics that also are expected out of our workforce, come out of free play, useless silliness, and time spent (not wasted) on open thought. Far from being useless, play creates empathy and compassion as well as trust, which allows people to live in ever-changing worlds, take risks, and ironically, know where the lines of real violence are.

Fake play fighting and play in general will help reduce real fighting later in life, it seems.

The podcast notes studies with baby rats who play in as rough-and-tumble fashion as any human mammal. If baby rats are stopped from engaging in that play, they grow up to be more violent. The “play” fighting actually teaches their brains how to know the lines between real hurting and not, thus building empathy. Mammals such as wolves, bear, the big cats, and primates all play. Dolphins and whales as well. It’s part of what helps build our bigger brains. Anyone who has had a cat or dog can attest to their playfulness and how it helps them bond with each other and with us.

Fantasy play in human children allows them to gain control of their very out-of-control little worlds, and also teaches them how to create competence. What appears violent and upsetting to adults (in an increasingly violent world) actually helps them build skills to keep them from behaving that way as adults.

It’s fascinating to me, not only because I have young boys, but because as a girl myself I was drawn to swords and bows and arrows, climbing trees (and everything I could get my hands on) and biking around the neighborhood. And I had the freedom to do those very things. Over the past 20 years there has been more and more control placed on children’s play and free time, leaving little to no time at recess to let off energy, and I know of loads of parents that won’t let their kids bike or skateboard, or walk home from school or learn to take the city bus.

Dr. Brown thinks we are doing our kids a disservice here and I agree. Free and interactive play allows children (male and female) to reduce stress, enhance creativity, learn faster, create deeper connections with peers, and when it comes to boys, what can I say? Limiting their fighting or physical play based on fear or cultural tropes about encouraging violence (that are now proving to be false), won’t help them learn how to navigate real conflicts later in life.

Ironic huh?

Fighting and rough-and-tumble play are good for boys. In fact, it will, if those studies are to be believed, make them more empathetic, more trusting, and more able to understand physical boundaries if we let them learn experientially. And playfully as they are naturally inclined to do.

With a “for real no” phrase and parents and neighbors willing to step in if things go too far afield, of course.

Adults need play as well, and that’s something I’ll address in future articles.

For me, I’m going to relish my own memories of a free and risky childhood and enjoy watching my boys learn all about being both human and good men in the most perfect way possible. By playing.

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