I have two boys, ages 11and 9. In order to spare myself from the wrath that is sure to come upon their discovery that they have been written about, the eleven-year-old will herein be known as #1 and the nine-year-old will be known as #2.
The minute that #2 was born, #1 could not help but to physically roll around on, poke, push, and generally be all up in #2's personal space. Oddly enough, #2 didn’t seem to mind, and engaged in retribution as soon as he gained control of his little arms and legs. Now that they are older, it doesn’t seem that much has changed. Well, except for the fact that now #2 is big enough to take his older brother, which by the way, seems to delight the both of them. So my first question is:
Why oh why must boys roughhouse?
A million years ago when I was a psychology student, I took several courses on childhood development and human behavior, which finally answered all my burning questions about why boys and girls behave so differently. Newsflash, it’s biology! Neurologically, hormonally, physically we are just built differently. But there was another explanation that I found more intriguing ... nature vs. nurture. Which contributes more to our behavioral traits, the biological factors with which we are born, or the environment and way in which we are raised?
As a student I spent hours playing armchair psychologist, analyzing both my college roommates and myself in order to determine if our varying degrees of dysfunction could be blamed on biology or our parents. What I learned is that our genes and our environment both contribute to why we have specific behavioral traits and the debate about which carries more weight can continue infinitum. I am sure, as genetic research progresses, one day we will be able to clearly identify the roughhousing gene that is passed down through the generations, further testing the nurture argument. Imagine going in for a prenatal appointment and having the doctor say, “I’m sorry, but your child is going to grow up roughhousing.” Laugh if you will, but it wasn't that long ago that the idea of in vitro fertilization seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie. In any case, until science can prove otherwise, the nature vs. nurture argument will continue.
That being said, in the case of my boys, I am just gonna blame it on nature because they definitely didn’t learn how to roughhouse from me. I’ll admit, I taught them how to burp like champs, but wrestling around on the floor until someone gets hurt, that did NOT come from me. Which leads me to my next question:
How should parents respond when their boys are roughhousing?
I’ll tell you what I have told my boys a million times, “If you are going to continue to do that, do not come to me when someone gets hurt," or, “I’m not going to take you to the hospital when your eyeball gets knocked out of your head,” the latter of which elicits huge guffaws from the both of them and actually just eggs them on. It’s almost like they want to see if I would actually let them walk around with an eyeball dangling out of their ocular cavity. Lest you judge, of course I wouldn’t! But is the disclaimer of, "Roughhouse at your own risk," the right response?
I recently stumbled across a book about roughhousing wherein the author touts the benefits of roughhousing, for both parents and children. [Benedet, Anthony, T. (2011). The Art of Roughhousing. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Roughhousing-Anthony-DeBenedet/dp/1594744874]. An interesting concept, and if he were aware of it, a concept that #1 surely would use to bolster his argument of why I should allow him to endlessly throw his brother to the ground and sit on him. But in spite of the compelling argument that roughhousing is good for boys, I still want to keep them safe.
Parenting is hard work and certainly this particular issue is one that many parents of boys grapple with. What is worse, being overprotective or being too tolerant? I don’t know the answer and I’m sure no matter what I do my boys will end up in therapy one day blaming nurture for their shortcomings. In any case, my goal as a parent is to allow my boys to explore the behaviors of which are natural to them but also to teach them that there are boundaries. Well, that ... and that you cannot knock your brother’s eyeball out.