Want Happy Kids? Let Them Roughhouse with Dad

By Bethany Mandel

Whenever our kids climb, jump on, or otherwise maul my husband, I laugh and think, “Better you than me.” When he’s not home, my youngest often tries to roughhouse with me in the same manner, to which I tell him, “Sorry dude, that’s your dad’s job. Mommy doesn’t do that.”

Having grown up without a father, there are multitudes of things that have made me feel especially grateful that my kids not only have one in the house, but happen to have a pretty amazing one at that. While my mother often said she played the role of both mother and father, it was abundantly clear even from a young age that that was an impossible feat, even for a woman as incredible as my mother.

Last week, research conducted in 2011 (back before I had children and paid attention to such stories) appeared in my newsfeed and only verified what I long suspected. ABC News reported,

“Dads play roughhousing with their young children is crucially important in the early development of kids, according to a study by Australian researchers.
‘Rough and tumble play between fathers and their young children is part of their development, shaping their children’s brain so that their children develop the ability to manage emotions and thinking and physical action altogether,’ said [Richard] Fletcher, [the leader of the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle in Australia].
The researchers believe that the most important aspect of this play is that it gives children a sense of achievement when they ‘defeat’ a more powerful adult, building their self-confidence and concentration. However, fathers who resist their children can also teach them the life lesson that, in life, you don’t always win. The act of a stronger adult holding back that strength also helps to build trust between father and child.”

Over the last two generations, the preponderance of single mothers has grown significantly, with the share of children being raised in one-parent households tripling from the single digits to one quarter of all American children. The task of raising a child alone is gargantuan, and the alternative (a child not being brought into this world due to abortion) is infinitely worse than a single mother raising a child. It is a fine line to walk between applauding the monumental work that a single mother does without at the same time ignoring the importance and value of fathers in a household.

And yet, we must do so. Our society has turned fathers into buffoons; into large children to be raised alongside small ones. The media often portray dads as idiots who make rearing children more difficult, not more rich and rewarding. Men and women, despite our culture’s efforts to convince us otherwise, are made differently, and thus fulfill different roles in every area of their lives, but especially in childrearing. As any nuclear family with children of both genders can attest, the relationship between father and son and father and daughter (not to mention mother and daughter and mother and son) are unique and valuable not only to the individuals, but also to the functioning of the family as a whole.

Unfortunately, there are more children than ever living in households without their fathers present under their roofs, or in any way. In order to stem the tide of absentee fathers, it’s important that these men understand their importance, and that our culture reaffirms it, even when doing seemingly inconsequential things with their children like roughhousing. Children need adult males in their lives, involved day-to-day, not just making guest appearances on special occasions. The rough play fathers engage in is just as important as the tender mothering that women do.

We shouldn’t need scientific validation to value men’s contributions to children’s lives, but now that we have it, let’s stop pretending that children don’t need mothers and fathers, and that households without both are missing a critical component necessary for a child’s development. Loudly proclaiming this fact may not bring men back into their children’s lives, but it might reverse the trend of one-parent households, encourage men to be more involved with their children, and encourage single mothers without father figures for their children to seek them out.

Originally published on Acculturated.com

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