Once in a while, something catches your eye and there is a visceral reaction. I was reading the Wall Street Journal and came across an article exploring gender differences in play styles, based on a new book called The Art of Roughhousing. As a child abuse pediatrician, the word ROUGH caught my eye. I have fond and special memories of my grandfather “pretend wrestling” with my brothers, and the great joy this gave them. However, my professional funnel on life includes parents who are rough with children, leading to either unintended or intended consequences. I was struck by the word ROUGH, and commented on a New York Times blog and wrote an article on my blog about the topic. One of the book’s authors tweeted me (gotta love Twitter) and we had a healthy online discussion about the terminology. He’s a dad and an internist, I’m a mom and a child abuse pediatrician. I prefer “horseplay” but wanted to learn more about this concept, and the doctor behind it. Here’s my interview with Dr. Anthony De DeBenedet.
Dr. Jen: Please share where the concept for this book came from
Dr. Anthony: I grew up in a divided house when it came to roughhousing. My mom was an emergency room nurse and pretty much left the room in a panic when my dad and I would team up on the family room floor. My dad was a professional hockey player (Go Red Wings and Penguins!) and had four brothers so I think interacting in a physical way (a bear hug, wrestle, high-five, etc.) was what came most natural for him. The idea for the book came to me when I was wrestling with my older daughter in our house; I saw how much fun she was having and began to notice that she was actually more cooperative when she had a chance to let loose with me. I started digging into some of the science behind rough-and-tumble play, approached Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. about jumping on the project as a co-author, and the rest is history. I'm happy to report my mom is now a roughhousing convert :).
Dr. Jen: So, a book on roughhousing and the positive parenting influence this has on kids. Can you discuss the gender issues this topic sparks? Specifically, discuss same sex families, single mothers/fathers and other non-traditional models and how your book applies.
Dr. Anthony: In the book and in our workshops we strongly advocate that roughhousing is for everyone - mom, dad, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, grandpa, grandma, etc. In other words, roughhousing has absolutely no gender boundaries. I think perhaps dads/men have a genetic or hormonal influence that might make roughhousing a more natural strength - broadly speaking. But I've seen plenty of women who can rev it up just as well if not better than their male counterpart. I'm a strong proponent of breaking down the stereotypes out there about men and women, dads and moms. We need to move beyond relying just on our natural gender strengths as parents to get us through our days as parents. And we need to move beyond our archaic view of what a "family" is (i.e. a mom, a dad, a child). Families come in all shapes and sizes and roughhousing can be a part of each and every model.
Dr. Jen: Would you describe what your book and research uncovered about this type of play/parenting?
Dr. Anthony: Well, I say this a little bit tongue and cheek but simply put roughhousing is the grail of parenting (and I'm not exaggerating much). I've really come to believe this. I was literally blown away when I first started learning about all the amazing developmental benefits for a child when an adult roughhouses with him or her - in fact this was probably the biggest motivating factor to write the book - I felt like these benefits needed to be brought out of the scientific journals and books into the mainstream. We talk a lot about the benefits in the book - intelligence, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, morality, physical fitness, joy, love, the list goes on and on. The science is pretty convincing (and I'm pretty critical about science and evidence given the profession I'm in). I tell parents that if you can only do one thing with your child, roughhouse with them. And I also tell them to choose play more often. If your kids are playing, then more than likely learning will naturally follow suit (and you might even be surprised with how easy it comes for them!)
Dr. Jen: Roughhousing - how rough is too rough in your estimation. I've chimed in on the New York Times Motherlode blog and on my website - can you talk about the choice of ROUGHhousing vs. HORSEPLAY?
Dr. Anthony: I think if you are mindfully roughhousing with your children it's actually tough to take things too far. We give a lot of cool tips in the book to keep things from getting too aggressive (freeze words, reverse the roles, self-handicap, slo-mo techniques, etc.). It's interesting, we as adults/parents/educators aren't very good at knowing when roughhousing playtimes are getting out of control. Science says we usually stop things way too early. Kids are better at recognizing the line than we are. What's even more interesting (or perhaps saddening) is that when the action is stopped too early - we call this a "break" in the natural arc of roughhousing (which consists of revving up but also winding down) some of the benefits are lost - especially emotional intelligence. I think we chose the word roughhousing, and specifically "the art of" for the title because we wanted to take aim at the misconceptions/stereotypes out there about it (i.e. that it's dangerous - which it doesn't have to be – safety comes from knowledge about how to do it well not prohibition; it just revs kids up - it actually makes them more cooperative in the long run; it is just an injury waiting to happen - the majority of childhood injuries are NOT the result of quality roughhousing between parent and child but rather due to child recklessness or accident - and recklessness might be a direct result of overcompensation on the part of the child for lack of roughhousing in the home; do I really need a book on roughhousing? - even seasoned chefs can learn new things from a cooking class or a cook book!). We chose horseplay for the subtitle. Dr. Jen: You are an internist, and a book author with a fantastic breadth of coverage in the media on this topic. Congratulations! What comes next for you professionally?
Dr. Anthony: We'll see - the book has opened up a lot of options. At least for now, I love my day job and consider it a privilege to be with patients and families on their journeys - and maybe help a little along the way. But my all-the-time job is that of father to my children and partner to my wife. If I can share some pearls from that experience, that's a huge honor too.
What do you think about the gender issues raised in this healthy discussion, and about the terminology I have issue with?