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Why parents needs to encourage wrestling, roughhousing, and unorganized play

GRANDFATHER
Shutterstock | Iryna Inshyna
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St. John Bosco understood boys and has great advice for all parents and children.

A fond memory from my childhood is how my dad would arrive home from work at night and challenge my two brothers and me to a wrestling match. There were no rules other than the goal to pin him down and count to three. The three of us would pile on him and grab at his legs, take running leaps with knobby elbows and knees barely under control. When you’re a six-year-old boy, your dad is invincible, so we never managed to defeat him. Victory wasn’t entirely the point, though. What was more important were the barbaric war whoops, the halting attempts at teamwork as we tried to defeat our father, and the slow realization that he was a heroic presence in our lives. We wanted to defeat him in battle because we wanted to be just like him.

Now that I have two sons of my own, roughhousing is part of my life again. As a father, my perspective is different now and I’ve realized that at least half of my responsibilities during the wrestling match are to keep my over-eager sons from injuring themselves as they recklessly throw their bodies at me in kamikaze attacks. In the process of protecting them, I absorb more painful blows than I’ll ever admit to them because, just like my dad before me, I never lose and remain the undisputed wrestling champion of the household. The point remains, though, that wrestling is a particular form of father-son bonding, and when we play together we all win.

The particular way in which boys play is on my mind as we approach the feast day of St. John Bosco. I’ve written before about how he became a surrogate father and teacher to hundreds of children, and how he was a master at helping orphaned boys develop into responsible men.

Aleteia writer Philip Kosloski points out that the reason Bosco was so good at raising children was because he was willing to show the kids that he loved them. The way this is done, says Bosco, is by, “taking part in their youthful interests.” With boys especially, he says, participating in their games is essential. “You cannot have love without this familiarity,” he says. When fathers and sons roughhouse they aren’t simply indulging in male aggression for no good purpose. They’re bonding. They’re learning to trust each other. They’re expressing love. The more unorganized the roughhousing is, the better. Playing simply for the sake of playing is a joy all its own, and it’s a powerfully formative experience for young children to play with their parents.

It’s also important that children have unorganized time to play with each other. No parents. No teachers. No coaches. No predetermined game or rules for how a game ought to be played. This is something that Bosco also understood, often sending his boys out to organize their own games and harmless mischief once their chores were done. Unorganized play of this type seems to be more rare than it used to be, and more and more children’s activities take place under the direction of an adult. I often see parents telling their kids how to play at the playground, organizing closely monitored play dates, and placing their children into an ever-expanding schedule of organized sports and other activities. Here’s the shocking truth – none of those activities truly counts as play.

Dr. Peter Gray, author of the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, lists five criteria for defining play. Here they are:

  • Self-chosen and self-directed
  • Done for its own sake and not an outside reward
  • Has some sort of rules/structure
  • Has an element of imagination
  • Conducted in an alert frame of mind

You can see that organized sports doesn’t qualify because it isn’t self-directed. This doesn’t mean that our children shouldn’t be playing sports and learning from a coach, but it does mean that organized sports cannot take the place of other forms of play. It’s important for our kids to be able to imagine new games, and to learn how to cooperate with other children to organize their own game. The rules of whatever game they invent may be creative and complicated, or the kids may simply choose to climb a tree and pretend to be monkeys. It doesn’t really matter. Just like when wrestling with dad, kids simply need time to bond with friends, to pretend, to fight and make-up, even to be bored.

Play, even something as basic as roughhousing, builds social intelligence and becomes the basis for developing friendships or parent-child bonding. The activity itself isn’t so important, because that isn’t the point. Rather, it’s all about the precious opportunity for us to be together simply because we like each other.

I have to admit, I still don’t think I could beat my dad in wrestling.

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