When my wife and I moved our family from the Bay Area to Seattle in 2015, we initially settled on an overpriced but otherwise unremarkable rental home.
It wasn’t big enough for what we needed, delivery trucks roared down the street out front at all hours, and the apple tree out back — which was supposed to be some kind of bonus, I suppose — scattered bitter, inedible clumps all over the yard in autumn.
But the silver lining of that home was the bedroom we gave to our son, who had just turned two. It offered the best natural light; room to accommodate an overflowing collection of stuffed animals, books and puzzles; and a huge, multi-coloured stamp of carpet where he and I first began to wrestle.
We practised the basics of freestyle wrestling there (“a single-leg takedown!” he would yell) but also waded into the silliness of pro wrestling, and we eventually graduated to inventing our own moves.
His signature became the SlapJack, wherein he lifted up the back of my shirt and slapped me with an open hand, a stinging but playful thwack that always resulted in a pin. He still uses it, three years later.
I learned later that these wrestling events were confusing for my wife, who at first didn’t understand why it seemed easier for me to roughhouse with my son than to cuddle. Apparently, she never envisioned mastering the Scorpion Deathlock as a valuable component of raising children.
As a generalisation, kids tend to seek out men for rough-and-tumble play. On my podcast, Yale University child psychiatrist Dr Kyle Pruett, who wrote a book called Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, told me: “Kids learn pretty early that if you want to mess around, rough and tumble and get down and dirty, go find dad. He’s more likely to tolerate it.”
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This, of course, doesn’t mean one parent should be doing all the wrestling. Back in 2011, Drs Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen co-wrote the book The Art of Roughousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, and found that the benefits of physical play range across the board for kids, no matter which parent they have in a chokehold.
“When we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back,” DeBenedet and Cohen write.
“We teach them self-control, fairness and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn’t everything. We show them how much can be accomplished by cooperation, and how to constructively channel competitive energy so that it doesn’t take over.”
Pruett also echoed that the idea of boundaries are perhaps one of the most important benefits of physical play for a child. Wrestling and roughhousing can also help a child learn when an activity has become too destructive and no longer fun, but actually hurtful.
“Knowing where that edge is is incredibly important to human beings,” Pruett told me. “And when you’re learning that from someone who loves you and cares about you and is willing to be stern with you, that is actually a very important form of reassurance for the child.”
A few weeks ago I heard a commotion in the bedroom of our new house — no more busy street, no more bitter apples — and discovered my wife pinned to the bed with my son squatting on her chest, my daughter cheering triumphantly.
The SlapJack never fails.