How Rough Play Builds Discipline and Social Confidence
When I was at primary school, wrestling games or playing ‘Street Fighter’ was banned. Some kids had taken it too far and someone got hurt. Not badly, but enough for the emerging health and safety culture to put the kibosh on it.
We were quite happy. We just went back to kicking lumps out of each other on the football pitch.
It was always play. Fun, but with an element of risk. A misplaced foot or hand could quite easily end in a bloody nose or bumped teeth. Carefully choreographed and rehearsed, it was closer to dance than combat.
This Type of Rough Play Taught us About Movement, Control and Incorporating Managed Risk into our Lives
The banning of these harmless activities was only the start. Boys are now actively discouraged from expressing themselves physically. I even read recently of a mother who requires her son to ask permission before giving her a kiss.
Is there a connection with the lost generation of millenials currently knocking on the door of adulthood and the imposition of restraint on boys from an early age?
This artificial restraint is a ticking time bomb of male expression and physicality.
Fighting and the Art of Self Control
Fast forward 15 years from the ‘Great Wrestling Ban of 1994’ and I’m walking onto the sparring floor of my adopted martial arts gym for the first time. I’m terrified by the hulking, tattooed giants before me. “Try not to look so scared,” the coach says kindly. A grizzled veteran invites me to spar. “Its my first time”, I squeak.
Sparring is about control, learning and discipline. Lose sight of one of these and your experience will be short and very painful.
This is why the sparring floor is where men are made. Boys with ego and anger arrive with something to prove but leave bruised and humiliated.
Those who approach humbly are treated with restraint – worthy students of a great and long established university.
But what on earth does this have to do with rough play and boys? And how does it apply to Dads?
‘Boundaries’ is the First Word in Rough Play
Rough play is a term I’ve created to encompass the types of games you would play with your son when there is plenty of space and minimal hard or sharp objects. His little sister should probably be in another room too.
These types of games might include:
Catch the monster (you’re always the monster, in case you wondered)
We also have a version of Rugby football which is closer to the Blood Bowl board game but without any great reference to the ball. It’s really for outside though…just ask my wife’s bone china collection.
It’s important to establish boundaries in these games. A selection of ground rules is a good place to start. Here are some examples:
No kicking or biting
No striking the head or face
Care around younger siblings
Breaking one of these boundaries results in the game being stopped immediately.
The game also stops when one participant doesn’t want to play any more. Escalations of violence or retaliation are also not tolerated. Otherwise, its no-holds-barred!!
These rules allow you to teach your son what is appropriate physical behaviour and play. As martial arts sparring teaches the student about control, physicality and discipline, rough play does the same.
Teaching Discipline Through Your Own Self Control
You’re a grown man. Your son is a young boy. So if it came down to a straight contest of strength or skill, you’d always win.
In the real world, there’s no way your son could tackle you, flip you over and slap your chest (playfully). Through this contrast of play and restraint and occasional expressions of your true strength you can easily teach the ‘holding back’ lesson.
In sparring, holding back is key. Start swinging and you’ll get beat down. Hold back, and you learn.
In rough play, you are always holding back. That discipline and control is what makes it fun. As with the ‘Street Fighter’ games of school days, rough play is choreographed. Like an inelegant bout of Cappoera.
Though holding back, you teach your son about his physical abilities. He can use physicality for control, play and sport or for violence, for which there are consequences. King David of the Israelites wrote:
Sons are like arrows in a man’s hand.
Boys are potentially lethal weapons. Physical beings to be trained for good or otherwise.
In your own example, your son learns about the value of control as well as the benefits of physical expression. And not a repressive ban in sight.
But can this type of play build social confidence and development?
Social Confidence is Directly Linked to Body Language and Expression
Amy Cuddy, a famous author, scholar and TED talker recently published a book called ‘Presence’ (read a short review here).
In the book, she explores numerous links between physical expression, confidence and social ability and skills. There are some truly astounding studies documented in the book including the Superman experiment where people who played a video game in which they could fly were subsequently more helpful than those who were passengers in an aircraft.
Did you ever meet a socially awkward person? I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest their body language was part of the issue. The flip side is that socially confident people display physical confidence and vice versa. Cuddy shows this over and over in her work.
Just watch this clip of the New Zealand Haka. This display of controlled physicality is one of confidence and power. This translates into their conduct on the sports field.
So what about your son? If he has physical confidence and security stemming from his ability to control his movements and physical prowess, will this not translate into social confidence and security?
If you are engaging in rough play with him, he will be enabled to not only learn about discipline, control and physical confidence but also to translate that into other aspects of his life, including interactions with other children and adults.
Don’t Be Bowed by Stigma
Western society is increasingly ashamed of masculinity particularly in the form of physical expression. Just look at the rise of the ‘Dad Bod‘ as being a goal worthy of attaining.
Muscular, strong men are the source of ridicule.
There will be people who will click onto this article and click off in disgust at such a base concept. After all, men are something to be tamed, restrained or feared. I’ll take that hit on my bounce rate to get the message out.
Don’t tame your son’s physicality. Instead teach him to channel it and ultimately use it for good.
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