Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2008

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The Down to Earth Dad

Parent Eye Contact
How It Builds Children's Self-Esteem

By Patrick Mitchell

The Power of Play

To the field of honor!" proclaims my 8-year-old son, daring me to accept his challenge to wrestle him on the living room floor. After some hemming and hawing, and following a brief inventory of my limbs from the previous night's bout, I agree to participate in five minutes of body slams, pillow whacks, and all other manner of dad-kid power grappling.

The power of touch is real, and our kids are willing to wrestle us for it-- on the living room floor, in swimming pools, and in the backyard--wherever dads are willing to play. Be it a power hug from the heart, a pillow fight for fun, or a relentless tickling of the ribs, our kids are hungry for, and actually require for their healthy development, some rough-and-tumble play with their dads.

You heard me right: Children actually need to play with their fathers and to play roughly sometimes--wrestling, rolling, jostling, and chasing around. Dads come by this type of rough-and-tumble play quite naturally, says Stephen J. Suomi, Chief of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Maryland, with the National Institutes of Health. He's a medical doctor who studies human and animal behavior, and he's one of the world's leading play experts.

Play Teaches Limits

"If a father and son are in a wrestling match, the child learns all the moves that would be involved in an actual fight (but) without causing any injury," Suomi says. "Fathers teach their children when enough is enough--if the play gets too rough, they (children) have to learn how to stop it before it gets out of hand."

Moms play with their kids too, but as Suomi notes, dads, uncles, and other men are rather famous for playing with children, and they are by and large willing to play more roughly, which can have great benefits as long as the play is done safely. Fathers show their kids how rough they ought to be and how careful they should be when playing, he explains.

Play Modulates Aggression

Boys and girls alike are naturally aggressive during the so-called "terrible 2s" when they'll hit, slap, punch, and clobber others to get their way. Parents don't see their toddlers as aggressive because they're so small, but if 2-year-olds weighed 400 pounds, Suomi jokes, we'd send them into battle and be victorious.

The naturally high aggression of 2-year-olds (and 3-year-olds!) tapers off as the child grows to elementary school age, he explains, but this intense early-life aggression resurfaces at puberty and in the early teen years. Suomi says dads can help their kids socialize their aggression by physically playing with them, he noted. Physical play with their dads "helps children learn how to modulate the intensity of their aggressive-like behavior. It helps children socialize aggression."

Learning appropriate play skills from their father ensures that children will know how to interact appropriately with their peers and in society later in life. Play has a behavioral basis in nature and is crucial for children's healthy social development. According to Suomi, kids who don't learn how to play in appropriate ways are at risk for being shunned by other children.

Here's how it works: Nobody wants to play with the kid who plays strangely--hits inappropriately, plays too roughly, or doesn't play by the rules. In nature, Suomi explains, "Animals who can't play nicely get dumped by their friends. In nature, those animals who aren't able to do that are shunned by the other animals." Children must "learn when things start getting out of hand," he says, and dads teach that lesson marvelously by showing their daughters and sons how to roughhouse, play fair, and recognize when they're being too rough.

"Fathers who form patterns of playing with their children when they are young stay involved with their children through puberty and beyond," Suomi says.

I have to agree; at least that's been my experience. Although nowadays I have a backup plan if things go sour when I decide it's time to wrestle my 16-year-old son on the living room floor: Run!

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter!™ Project for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter!™ Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at Website:

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