Learning Self-Control: Play-fighting With Dad

By Erin Anderssen
Saturday, April 3, 2004 - Globe and Mail

The family that plays together stays together, popular wisdom says.

But new scientific research on aggression turns up a more surprising link: Along with the more genteel pursuits of board games and story time, kids who regularly enjoy a good tussle on the family-room floor especially with dad actually learn to throw fewer punches later.

This finding adds to the odds against teen moms, whom studies have already identified as among the most likely to have children who grow up to be overly aggressive. Not only are they more likely to pass along an impulsive genetic makeup, and raise their sons and daughters in less stable environments, but they are also more likely to raise them without fathers the parent most naturally predisposed to play-fight.

Research has made the same observation about depressed moms who don't initiate floor play with their babies or toddlers, and children without siblings who have less opportunity to roughhouse. But fathers are believed to be a key component; in home studies, they were found to engage more often in wrestling and tackling games than mothers.

Almost every social animal play-fights, from the puppy to the baby monkey, and young children do it spontaneously. From a purely evolutionary point of view, wrestling for fun builds physical strength and gives practice in protecting yourself should danger arise.

But it also fine-tunes social behaviour, teaching the participants how hard they can push and introducing them to compromise, since a true play fight requires that everyone gets his or her turn on top, and reconciliation, should someone play too hard.

Sergio Pellis, a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge, has tracked rats who have been isolated from the pack as juveniles; without the practice of friendly play fights, they were more likely in adulthood to escalate foolish encounters with the dominant male rat, were not as skilled at finding a mate and were often rejected by the group.

This doesn't mean that daycare centres should encourage playground wrestling, Dr. Pellis stresses, though it does suggest a rethinking of zero-tolerance policies about fighting, which may lump play together with real conflict.

And it explains, says Richard Tremblay, at the University of Montreal, the adult appetite for games such as football and boxing the grown-up version of the toddlers' play fight. Dr. Tremblay didn't have to look far for information on that subject: His father was once a respected player for the Ottawa Rough Riders.