Author: Jennifer StGeorge
Original paper: Comparing Fathers' Physical and Toy Play and Links to Child Behaviour: An Exploratory Study
The background of research in rough and tumble play is in evolutionary science and ethology, where scientists studied mammals’ behaviours and play. The evidence from these studies gave clear criteria for physical interactions that were intended as play and not aggression: play behaviour in rats provides one of the clearest illustrations of these behaviours. When fighting, rats target the rump and belly of their opponent, but when play-fighting they target only the nape of the neck, clearly signalling the lack of aggressive intent. Rats are also observed to wrestle by pinning one another to the ground and to voluntarily reverse roles so that the dominated opponent can become dominant (Pellis & Pellis, 2007).
In humans, research on rough and tumble play has focused largely on children in the playground, and with similar results: Smith (2010) summarises that rough and tumble play can be distinguished from aggression by the mutual laughter and smiles of the partners, the self-restraint of physical contact, and often by the continuing social relations between partners after the play.
It is interesting therefore to consider rough and tumble play between father and child, where some parameters are entirely different to the peer-peer play. For example, the child’s opponent is now clearly stronger than the child, which is not how young children choose their play partners (Humphreys & Smith, 1987). So for the child to want to engage in an obviously uneven match, there must be some other motivation; according to interviews with mothers and fathers (Fletcher, May, StGeorge, Morgan, Lubans, 2011; StGeorge & Fletcher, unpublished), it’s the connection between father and child: rough and tumble between dad and child is intimate and relational and builds a bond of trust and warmth between father and child.
Additionally, in peer-peer play fighting, the play is implicitly regulated by the ongoing willingness of the partners to participate. However, in father-child play, the role of regulation is clearer – if the child uses too much force, then most fathers will explicitly correct the child’s behaviours. Given these differences, we would expect to see positive outcomes for children’s social and emotional skills, and ultimately less aggression in children, boys and girls, who experience pleasurable, vigorous and competitive physical interaction with dad.
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Author keywords: father–child interaction, rough-and-tumble play, strengths and difficulties, self-regulation, social-emotional competence