The importance of wrestling with your toddler

Lions do it. Monkeys do it. Hell … even elephants do it. Because it’s an important part of growing up.

Dad wrestling toddler

I have a guilty pleasure. I like to watch grown men beat the everlasting Jesus out of each other on TV.

The first few times I sat down and watched a few Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights, my heart was racing—I felt so conflicted about what I was seeing.

I was already familiar with boxing, so the idea of watching a couple of guys thump each other in the head with padded gloves until one of them fell over, with all of the grace of a shot kangaroo, wasn’t foreign.

But MMA is a whole different beast. It doesn’t stop when someone hits the canvas. It’s bloody brutal. And these days, I love watching it.

But the idea of hitting someone when they’re already on the floor to make sure they stay down sounds less like a sport, and more like a pub brawl between rival bikie gangs.

Luckily, there’s an exciting form of combat that’s a lot less brutal and still very competitive—it’s called DTW (Dad Toddler Wrestling), or as the academics call it, ‘Rough and Tumble Play’.

A couple of years ago, a bunch of US boffins wrote a scientific paper about its role in animal communication and development.

Unfortunately, as they are academics (and don’t know how to write so normal people can understand them), it’s boring as bat shit and harder to read than a mannequin at a poker table.

But the take-home message was rough-and-tumble play helps animals understand their place in society, regulate their emotions, and develop and evolve the way they communicate.

The good news is that, as with a lot of things in life, what works for animals also works for us. Which is hardly surprising, since we share 99% of our DNA with Bonobo monkeys and Chimpanzees.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s hard-wired into the way we behave with our kids, and the impulse to grab them and wrestle around and get all primal is completely normal.

Even better, it’s good for them—and you—on a number of levels.

1. Bonding through play

We’ve written about bonding with your baby through play before but now that he (or she … it works just the same) is older and bit less fragile, some roughhousing is a great way for dads to bond with their toddlers.

Most of you won’t remember being two or three years old but put yourself in their shoes for a moment, and think about the most physically dominant force in their life.

To them, you’re a huge alpha male. Loud voice. Physically imposing. Utterly terrifying when you lose your temper.

But when you decide to get down to their level, and wrestle around a little on the floor, you’re inviting them into your world. A world where they can mix it up with the big boss, and that’s a gateway into a world of self-confidence.

2. Impulse control

The key to rough-and-tumble play is to know when to stop.

If you accidentally hurt your toddler, you’ll know about it—and you’ll bust out some hugs and make soothing noises until the crying isn’t so loud that the deaf lady next door is pounding on your front door.

Just as importantly, they will learn to stop when they accidentally hurt you while you’re playing. Because nothing says “game over” louder than dad cradling his recently stomped-on balls and calling a halt to proceedings.

This sort of lesson is key for toddlers to learn impulse control, and empathy for others.

3. Some form of ethics

Off the back of the previous point, you being the big guy in the situation who could clearly put your toddler through the wall with a flick of the wrist carries a lot of weight.

But with you holding back the obvious strength you have, you’ll be teaching your toddler that being physically dominant should take a back seat to making sure that everyone’s having fun.

4. Body fitness … and mind fitness

Physically, rough-and-tumble play is good cardio for both of you, and good strength training for your kid. They’ll be dealing with physical resistance that they have absolutely no chance of beating — and that’s a great workout.

Mentally, they’ll be learning about taking calculated risks. They’re in a safe environment, where they get to try out new things that in an unregulated space might seem too dangerous to attempt.

Interestingly, some researchers from Australia, the Netherlands and the UK recently teamed up to look at the effects of what they called “challenging parenting behaviour” including rough-and-tumble play.

What they found was that parents who engage with their children in more challenging ways were less likely to produce a kid with anxiety problems later in life.

The study also found that dads tend to “go easier” on their daughters than they do with their sons … which means dads who try to protect their “little princesses” might actually be doing more harm than good by toning it all down just because they’re girls.

This was too long and I didn’t read all of it

The short version is playing choo-choo trains with your toddler is good, but can get boring for both of you. And pile-driving your toddler through a glass coffee table is a profoundly bad idea.

There’s a middle ground in there somewhere, which you can find with your little guy or girl, which can help teach them some really valuable life lessons while you have an enormous amount of fun.

But remember, just like those awkward dates you had as a teenager, when either one of you makes it clear that it’s time for the shenanigans to stop … it’s really, really time to stop.