In Appreciation of Roughhousing

Last night, while our baby slept, the big kids took up weapons against the parents.

First, they were Vikings, William wielding a plastic golf club and Jessie brandishing a folding hairbrush as they tore, screaming, down the hall. They’d pressed small globs of florescent red ear wax (don’t ask) strategically onto their stomachs and backs to mimic “wounds from the enemy.” Eventually, they banded together, held a meeting in the bathroom, and emerged with two plastic light sabers and a top-secret plan.

Jessie approached me on the couch, where I was reclining with reading glasses perched on my nose and the new issue of Real Simple in my lap. I felt her warm breath on my cheek as she whispered, “Don’t worry! We’re not going to do it to you. We’re going to do it to Papa!” Then she cackled maniacally, and said, “We’re going to kill Papa!”

This is how it goes most nights in our house. I tidy the kitchen and catch up on some light reading while my husband, Michael, is slashed and killed by the children. Sometimes this happens on the playroom floor, but most nights it’s upstairs in our bedroom for a round of Wrestle Mania (complete with moves they’ve invented, like the Rhode Island Roller and the San Diego Slammer). While they pummel one another, I yell intermittently to Michael to stop before someone gets hurt — a plea he cheerfully ignores.

Now, Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen, authors of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, say this kind of rough play with a parent (it’s usually Dad) benefits kids physically, emotionally, and even cognitively. Leaving aside the sad fact that we need a book to tell us what dads have known for eons and that the authors felt it necessary to include specific roughhousing moves in case we can’t think of any ourselves, it’s good to know that Michael’s horseplay with the kids, which often ends in someone falling off the bed and crying, is actually good for them. Maybe I can just ignore them and get on with my nightly reading.

And yet. Last night, as usual, I sat on the sidelines as the kids attacked Michael, who fought back valiantly, then staged a drawn-out and extremely loud death on the playroom rug. “OK,” I thought, “Time for bed.”

But then Michael rose up and tried to get them to go after me, defenselessly thumbing through “Five Easy Dinners.” He lurched at me, light saber held high, and I pulled my knees up in feigned terror.

That’s when Jessie’s face morphed from joy to panic. “No!” she yelled, eyes wide. “Stop!”

I realized I’d signaled to her that I was vulnerable. Was it my passively reading on the couch? Or, the fairy books she devours, wherein the all-male troop of green goblins wreaks havoc on the girl characters and their microscopic fairy friends?

I wasn’t sure. But it was time to stop playing the role of bystander as the kids and Michael “unleashed their creative life force,” the true purpose of horseplay, according to DeBenedet and Cohen. My husband had taught our kids the joys of roughhousing. Now it was my turn.

“Upstairs!” I yelled. “I’m gonna take you all down!”

Over the next 30 minutes as we trounced and snort-laughed our way through a round of Wrestle Mania, I realized how physically exhausting this roughhousing business is and wondered how Michael does it every night. By the end, I was beat. I couldn’t deliver even half a Rhode Island Roller.

But Jessie was more awake than ever, a look of relieved delight spread across her face.

“Mama!” she yelled as I rose to tidy the kitchen. “Do another Slammer!”