When we brought our son home from India at age 3, he was all about the physical world. He wanted to touch everything, his hands darting out every which way to grab objects he saw not just in front of him but in his peripheral vision too. He also wanted to eat everything — even my ultimate challenge: a beet-swiss chard salad sprinkled with feta and topped with balsamic dressing. He devoured it.
I remember playing with him those days, holding his hands and spinning in our front yard as he soared high (from his perspective) over the lawn. He had gotten little practice walking in his previous life, so we ambled all over the yard, rolling clumps of soil into balls, dropping twigs in the stream and practicing walking down hills. Before long, he was trying to run.
Indoors, I would lie on the floor and balance him on my knees, flying him above me like an airplane. Because he had missed out on crawling, we practiced that, sliding under tables, around obstacles and through the legs of a piano bench (the latter is not recommended). As he grew stronger, we roughhoused, playing and rolling on the livingroom carpet, squeezing him between couch cushions like a sandwich.
Now he’s 9, and I have no idea when we stopped roughhousing, hadn’t even thought about it till yesterday, when I heard a broadcast on NPR. Psychologist Lawrence Cohen, co-author of The Art of Roughhousing, was saying that aggressive play is important and can take many forms, even as simple as trying to steal the socks off each other’s feet. Here’s part of the transcript:
This kind of play serves vital emotional and physical needs for kids. It helps parents and kids bond, resolve conflicts, practice setting limits and deal with aggression. “It’s a big developmental accomplishment to regulate those aggressive impulses,” [Cohen] says. “When we’re always telling them no, no, no, that interferes with their natural cycle of revving up and calming down.”
Why did my son and I stop the rough-and-tumble play? It was not due to his size or strength, because even now he is not too big or too tough for me to handle. It’s more likely that I forgot about the joy of it, the freedom in it for each of us.
It’s a memory that probably got buried under a focus on Getting Things Done, which changed my concept of playtime to include things like planting zucchini and beans in the garden, or measuring ingredients for bread, or training the dog, or spelling out items for my grocery list. These are all good activities, and we certainly have bonded through them, especially in the kitchen and garden. But there is a certain sterility about our times together.
I wonder whether my task-driven tendency has been stunting my son’s — and my — development. It’s possible. But it’s never too late to change. He’d better hang onto his socks.