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SALT LAKE CITY — When someone hands a 9-month-old to a man standing in a group of adults, what does he usually do? I'll wager he throws the baby in the air while all the women watch with "O" shaped mouths and fear on their faces.
The men suddenly turn into NFL quarterbacks and the baby is the pigskin ready to be tossed back and forth.
Why do men wrestle, manhandle, roughhouse, squeeze and toss children? At least two answers come to mind, and both are reasons why we should thank our dads on Father's Day for all the tickle fights and body rocket launches.
1. Evolutionary survival
Roughhousing is a parent-child response that men naturally contribute for the survival of the species. Men and women each add special ingredients to the health and well-being of child development. Researchers found that while mothers are more nurturing, protective and provide instrumental care, fathers “tend to engage in more physically stimulating and unpredictable play than mothers do” This study, "Promoting Child Adjustment by Fostering Positive Paternal Involvement," is published in the Applied Developmental Science textbook, 2005 edition.
Roughhousing offsets the typical "put on your life vest" mother. Kids need to be cuddled and wrestled with.
Males and females can and should express characteristics of the other gender, such as men expressing affection and nurturing, or women engaging in rough and tumble play. But research has shown that children need to have access to fathers and mothers, or male and female figures in their lives, to benefit from the typical characteristics each gender adds to his or her well-being.
In order to survive, active play engenders higher cognitive stimulation. Harvard neuroscientist Charles Nelson found that rats that were raised in stimulating environments with complex toys, social contacts and acrobatic challenges outperformed rats reared in isolation. These rats had more synapses per neuron, longer dendritic branching, and increased capillary flow. Fathers’ orientation toward physical play creates a stimulating environment that is similar to that experienced by the high-performing rats.
Physical play also increases the flow of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is responsible for scholastic success because it supplies higher learning skills, memory and logic.
Muscles, as well as brains, are more robust through wrestling and roughhousing. Dads have a profound impact on their children’s physical fitness. Studies have shown that the father’s, rather than mother's, activity level and weight strongly predict the children's activity and weight when they become adults.
This Father's Day, thank your dad for your brains and brawn if he actively played with you.
2. Socio-emotional competence
Rough-and-tumble play requires children to adapt quickly to unpredictable situations. When a child rides a "horsey" by balancing on her dad's bouncing leg or on his back while he crawls on hands and feet, anything can happen. Wrestling has a few "loose" rules but is usually a free-for-all. Therefore, learning how to cope with sudden changes while actively playing trains children to cope with change when they’re out in the real world.
Through play, children learn social mastery, which has been linked with control of violent impulses later in life. When roughhousing with dad, they learn the difference between play and aggression. They know when to "stop" or when someone has crossed the line because dad called a timeout.
For example, if dad is leading a bedtime pillow fight and things get a little heated, he keeps the situation under control by saying, "OK, guys. Let's watch out for each other and don't face smack. It's getting a little crazy in here."
Emotional intelligence helps children read and interpret these social cues when they are on the playground or elsewhere without dad's guidance.
It's hard sometimes for a mom to watch her little "schnookums" get tossed around or playfully body slammed. Bumps and scrapes are bound to happen. Instead of cuddling and kissing a child’s “boo boo,” dads have a tendency to distract their kids from the pain with humor or some other activity. Overprotective mothers tend to raise children who give up more easily, complain when things get hard, or become a target for bullying.
Roughhousing offers dads a chance to show affection to their kids in a fun and controlled environment. Whenever I see a dad tossing a kid in the air, he usually follows with affectionate exchanges of love when the child is safely back in his arms. Dads are great at being the "Human Tower of Terror" while also being the Kissy Monster. It's an extension of how they show love.
This Father's Day, thank your dad for how he showed you love and taught you socio-emotional competence if he actively played with you.
Julie K. Nelson is a mother, wife, professor, author of "Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger: 25 tips for Surviving Parenthood" and "Parenting With Spiritual Power," and is a contributor on radio and TV. Her website is www.aspoonfulofparenting.com.