Aggressive, or what is better known as rough and tumble play, is an important element in kids’ psychological and social development. When moderated by attentive parents, R&T play teaches kids not only about the limits of aggression. In playing aggressively with a considerate parent a child also learns about intimacy.
This understanding struck me with great force when it dawned on me a few years ago. I have written it down for myself, but I am yet to share and test it with other scholars.
I don’t know whether child development experts have done a lot of work on this association. However, I am settled enough to put together a research and action project on the question. That said, there is a lot of work on the association of R&T play with a number of outcomes. Even then, I suspect if a look a little harder I might just find that there is a whole body of work on the very question stashed somewhere in the annals of child psychology – and here I thought I found the final answer to violence.
Anyhow, the simple question I shall propose to answer is that to understand intimacy children need to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy expression of aggression. And to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy expression of aggression children need to be given space to engage in R&T play.
It is a hypothesis, this, not a certainty. And here are some of the arguments that brought me to the question.
Children enjoy all kinds of things whose pleasure adults have long forgotten. Like being rude. Farting. Biting. And hitting others.
So, violent suppression of a kid’s instinct to push, kick, bite or punch, among other anti-social behaviours, is likely to make him or her, in the long run, like the very things you are trying to make him dislike, rather than less so, I think.
Here’s how it works. Children are born with all kinds of instincts. Smiling, altruism and sociability are some of the instincts. And kicking and other aggressive behaviors are also part of what we come with into the world. Slapping a child who has just slapped you the adult is likely to make him or her stop the behaviour, almost certainly. But it also teaches the kid something else. Might wins. To make others stop what they are doing slap them harder. To get what you want, be sure you are bigger, can retaliate with more force, have more strength or power.
What the child does after they stop crying is to learn to suppress their instinct. And stay confused. What you wanted them to learn is that slapping others when they are playing is not acceptable. The aggressivity gets hidden then. It lies dormant. The child has not learned why it is wrong to attack others just because one feels like it. Maybe it becomes passive. But it may just as we’ll be expressed in verbal aggression (if physical violence is so bad). She or he has not learned the value underlying the “lesson you have ‘taught’ him or her” – the value of sociability.
This is where a parent’s attentiveness, especially a father’s attentive presence, might be crucial. I used to think children are amusing, with their imaginative games and unhidden joy in knowing and doing new stuff. But now I know how incredibly fun it is to play with children. I am on shaky scientific basis here, but I think all children are inventors, artists, and scientists all rolled into their little super absorbent minds. Fathers need to find time to play with their kids, even if it just to be reminded what the world looks like from the little people’s perspectives. (I guess the addressees of that sentence are employers, the state, and parents themselves.) It is only when you play with a child, wrestling around the floor or pretending to be Zulu warriors, so willing to let the child direct play, that you as the parent gets to realise how important your presence is to the child’s development. Maybe not immediately. Maybe you have not thought about it in this way. But in that interaction you the parent and the child learn not just to have fun together but also about a different kind of intimacy. You teach the child about rules, both of you learn more about each other. As a parent you get to learn about how time is different for children and adults. Above all though, it is during play, when the kid kicks hard or puts excessive force in the push, that the parent is able to stop the kid and explains that that kick or shove was too hard. You moderate their roughness. You teach them how to control their strength. They learn that play can be rough, but there is a point when it becomes violence. Role play, limits, reality and pretense, care, rules of the games – they learn so much.
The child I have in mind is a boy. But of course there are girls who enjoy rough play as much as boys. And there are boys who prefer playing with dolls and dressing up, or sitting quietly in a corner playing a computer game, reading, or just watching others. Not all children like playing rough, that is something obvious to observant parents. You shouldn’t force your boy into daring play or competing games, if they would rather be pushing a pram, or insist on your daughter to like pink if they want to be all up on the jungle gym.