The Benefits of Father-Son Roughhousing
Given the research evidence cited by Biddulph and Keenan, as well as Uba's observations, it's no wonder that recent studies show three- and four-year olds whose fathers play in a rough-and-tumble way with them (and provide firm discipline) are rated as more popular and less aggressive than their peers. These findings were related by Michael Durham in a March 2003 article in the London Times provocatively titled "Fighting Fathers Breed a Better Adjusted Child, Say Psychologists."
It is important to note that Durham isn't saying that all dads need to do to ensure well-adjusted kids is wrestle with them in the living room every so often. Rather, the research conclusions suggest that an effective fathering relationship with young children includes boisterous play.
Boys benefit from such play in several ways. First, Biddulph and Uba both point to the fact that it gives young boys a socially acceptable form of physical touch and closeness. Also, according to Biddulph, play fighting provides dads with a powerful way of teaching their sons the physical self-control they'll need later as boyfriends, partners, and fathers themselves. Fathers can find the balance between their young sons enjoying themselves and getting frustrated or hurt by using rules for their sons (no punching, kicking, etc.) and by asking how they're doing as their play-fighting progresses. By doing so, they model to their kids the fact that concern for others' feelings can be maintained during physically engaging play.
Some outbursts of seething and tears are inevitable in daddy-son wrestling matches, and it's important for fathers to remember that their sons aren't learning aggressive behavior from them (unless they are, in fact, playing too rough); rather, they're learning how to express their natural tendency toward aggression in socially acceptable ways. Boys like Aiden need parents to teach them through experience how aggression differs from enjoyable physical play. However, if Aiden's parents respond to his sippy-cup strong-arm tactics by preventing him from roughhousing altogether, they may paradoxically increase his risk for later, more serious aggressive behavior by delaying his grasp of this critical difference.