Roughhouse with your kid, it’ll make her brain grow

I first saw the post “The Importance of Roughhousing with your kids” on the Pigtail Pals Facebook page, where I get much of my information. I wish Melissa Wardy were the editor of the New York Times, because the post she linked to is about a year old, and I’d never seen it, heard of it, or heard any of the information about roughhousing before I saw it on her page.

On the blog, Art of Manliness, the post reads:

Helping your child develop a resilient spirit is one of the best things you can do as a parent. The ability to bounce back from failures and adapt to unpredictable situations will help your kids reach their full potential and live happier lives as adults. And an easy way to help boost your kids’ resilience is to put them in a gentle headlock and give them a noogie.

Roughhousing requires your child to adapt quickly to unpredictable situations. One minute they might be riding you like a horse and the next they could be swinging upside-down. According to evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff in his book Wild Justice, the unpredictable nature of roughhousing actually rewires a child’s brain by increasing the connections between neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn contributes to behavioral flexibility. Learning how to cope with sudden changes while roughhousing trains your kiddos to cope with unexpected bumps in the road when they’re out in the real world.

This theory resonated with me because if I could define health in one word it would be “resilience” and sickness would be “stuck.”

Roughhousing as a positive influence for kids seems consistent with what Po Bronson wrote about years ago in Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children. According to Bronson’s research, you don’t compliment the kid on the finished task, but on the effort. The most important skill for success and happiness is learning to tolerate frustration and learning to work through it. Rewarding the process, not the end goal. (Artists, are you listening?)

A similar thesis is presented in a new, popular book: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. The author, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter  aren’t test scores, but emotional intelligence, skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.

Optimism is also now understood not as a personality trait but a skill set: making a plan of action, seeking advice from others, training to look at problems as a temporary setback to be overcome.

Art of Manliness describes roughhousing as just that:

Additionally, roughhousing helps develop your children’s grit and stick-to-itiveness. You shouldn’t just let your kids “win” every time when you roughhouse with them. Whether they’re trying to escape from your hold or run past you in the hallway, make them work for it. Playtime is a fun and safe place to teach your kids that failure is often just a temporary state and that victory goes to the person who keeps at it and learns from his mistakes.

Remarkably, back to testing:

Psychologist Anthony Pellegrini has found that the amount of roughhousing children engage in predicts their achievement in first grade better than their kindergarten test scores do. What is it about rough and tumble play that makes kids smarter? Well, a couple things.

First, as we discussed above, roughhousing makes your kid more resilient and resilience is a key in developing children’s intelligence. Resilient kids tend to see failure more as a challenge to overcome rather than an event that defines them.  This sort of intellectual resilience helps ensure your children bounce back from bad grades and gives them the grit to keep trying until they’ve mastered a topic.

In addition to making students more resilient, roughhousing actually rewires the brain for learning. Neuroscientists studying animal and human brains have found that bouts of rough-and-tumble play increase the brain’s level of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps increase neuron growth in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, logic, and higher learning–skills necessary for academic success.

I love this theory from a feminist perspective as well. I am so sick of hearing about “boy energy.” As I’ve written about extensively on this blog, girls are not intrisically quieter than boys. Boys’s roughhousing is tolerated, but girls are told to settle down and be quiet. They are rewarded when they do. I see this all the time, and I’m sure you do too. Not to mention ridiculous generalizations like girls are “artsy” and literary, quiet activities. Girls are “artsy” when its about construction paper and Elmers’ glue. If we’re talking great artists, paintings that sell for the most money, or shows at the MOMA, all of a sudden, it’s boys who are artsy. The same is true with “great” writers; wow, men are verbal! Who knew? Not to mention “cooking” becomes masculine when we’re talking about great chefs and who gets the most cooking shows and awards. “Masculine” and “feminine” qualities have everything to do with stereotypes and status.

But I digress. Check out this whole post on roughhousing, it’s really great.

2 thoughts on “Roughhouse with your kid, it’ll make her brain grow

  1. Thanks for this Margot. Really interesting. I struggle with roughhousing, it doesn’t come naturally to me but my two girls love it. Luckily their dad does too. Wonder why…

    I note that one of the authors of the book is Larry Cohen, who wrote Playful Parenting, which is great.

    • Hi Tamara,

      Roughhousing doesn’t come naturally to me either! My husband does it. Same with the math homework! I am so aware of my conditioning and trying not to pass it on to my kids. My tolerance for the roughhousing grows, but I can only last about 5 minutes! But, as far as letting them roughhouse, my tolerance has grown a lot.

      Margot