The kids and I used to wrestle on the living room floor when they were younger – when I was younger.
All three were afforded the same wrestling opportunities, but Soren (my son) seemed to enjoy it more than his sisters. Boys sometimes have extra physical energy demanding an outlet.1
Because Soren was smaller than me, I wrestled with him down on my hands and knees. This enabled Soren to develop his signature move – run around behind me, jump on my back, and hold on for dear life as I turn into a bucking bronco. His ability to latch on like super-Velcro was truly amazing.
From his perspective, my signature move was to buck him off (eventually) and to ensnare him in my arms and legs, completely entangling him and say, “There’s no way you are getting out of this.”
I said this every time.
I would then relax my grip just enough to allow him to escape, with some struggle. He always managed to wiggle out, a small victory.
The escape accomplishment allowed him a micro-win, a precious victory against Dad, and created another opportunity to bolt around behind me like Flash Gordon and jump on my back. And the cycle continues.
One day, I surprise attacked Soren and Svea with a toilet paper bomb. They were just hanging out in the living room, unexpecting victims. I came in fast and threw the roll at them while holding the end, creating a streamer. This is more than slightly out of character for me, to be irrational, even wasteful, which is why it was fun to watch their reaction.
Before we were done, all three of us were picking up toilet paper scraps off the floor and pushing them in the other person’s face while making the “Num. Num. Num.” Cookie Monster sound. It really doesn’t get any better than this.2
This is great bonding time, full of wonderful laughter, fun memories, and great life lessons, two of which I will elaborate on below.
Lesson #1 – Learning Limits
Wrestling with someone is a complicated dance of sorts, where we act out scenarios in tandem with another. In doing so, we learn how to maneuver with another human, with their body and their actions and our predictions of their actions entangled with their predictions of our simultaneous actions and reactions. We thus become physically intertwined with another through our movements and, mentally melded (with practice) with their thoughts and predictions about what they might do next.
At least in play-wrestling, certain moves foreshadow other moves. If you practice enough with the same opponents, you kind of know what’s likely coming next… probably a signature move, unique to each person.
Everyone has their favorite signature move.
The ability to predict someone’s next action with some level of accuracy is what gives us the sense that we know them.
Play wrestling is a strange cooperation, in that the movements are coordinated and orchestrated to counteract the movements of another, while simultaneously restricted to behaving within the largely unspoken rules of play – specifically, the limit of not wanting to hurt the person play-wrestling with us. Hopefully, they have a similar goal of not hurting their opponent, which might be me, or you.
It’s important to wrestle with our kids when they are young. In doing so, they learn how to play pseudo-rough without intentionally hurting each other. Through play-wrestling, they learn about limits, because they themselves, on occasion, have been minor-hurt (accidental head bumps, a carpet-burn from attempting a crazy move, etc.). Together, we learn (and sometimes re-learn), that it’s not fun to get hurt.3
From this experience, kids develop a certain sympathy for others who hurt, an important attribute that allows us to function at a higher social level.
Extrapolating further, and perhaps even more importantly, children also learn they are capable of hurting others, because they have learned they can be hurt. Reciprocity thinking.
It’s not a good feeling – to hurt others – and requires an apology, even if it’s an accident. At least this is what most parents teach their kids… to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not only polite; it shows a certain level of compassion and remorse. It’s also proper socialization and allows kids to begin to function in a broader societal structure, as they grow up and relational complexities increase.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of teaching our kids how to behave in social settings, to become properly socialized, such that others want to include them in a continuum of social settings, much the joy of life.4
On occasion, various neighborhood kids wrestled with us on our living room floor. I always know the kids whose father did not wrestle with them. It has nothing to do with their wrestling ability, nothing to do with their signature moves, nor their strength, nor dexterity. It’s most evident in their perception of the limits of play.
Kids who have not play-wrestled hurt me. Intentionally.
Sometimes they just kick me as hard as they can, usually in the shin. When they are four years old, I can handle it (although that’s no picnic either). Less so when they are 7 or 8.
I once took a foot to the stomach like someone was kicking a field goal. And the child thought it was funny. It wasn’t, at least not to me. This child just hadn’t learned their actions can hurt others. Or, more specifically, they hadn’t developed a certain sympathy for their own ability to hurt someone else.
In these cases, I “pause game” and tell them it hurt. I also explain that kicking is not part of wrestling… that we are just having fun, not trying to win a fight. We are certainly not trying to hurt each other. In fact, we actively try to avoid painful outcomes.
In college, we used to say,
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Then, it’s just fun.
This logic does not apply when wrestling with the kids. It was meant to sound clever, not be true.
Play wrestling provided a learning experience and was usually great fun if we quit before someone cried.
Most dads who horseplay with their kids develop a keen sense of the natural limits of physical interactions, the moment just before someone gets hurt. You just kind of sense when it starts getting a little out-of-control. Parents know what I’m talking about here. The idea is to call a truce or pause for a short break just before we cross this limit.
At least in our family, the wrestling session was officially over when we hugged it out. Once we hugged, everyone knew the wrestling session had ended. No surprise attacks after hugging. Before this, surprise attacks were a key ingredient to a successful maneuver, the very essence of Soren’s signature move.
This brings up another sub-point… kids who had not wrestled at home, often did not understand they should stop when everyone else stopped. Even after I explained it quite thoroughly, I still needed to watch out for the surprise pile-drive after I laid down on the couch to catch my breath and cool down. It was unwise to pick up a book too soon and block my view from a potential body slam.
In wrestling with our kids, we, as parents, give our children experiential data – of knowing when to stop, of knowing what might hurt and therefore what might hurt someone else, of knowing it’s not fun to get hurt, that hurting someone else feels bad, for everyone, and that they can inflict pain upon another, sometimes unwittingly.
Through play wrestling, we thus develop within our children the ability to sense when to quit before someone gets hurt. The hope is that this same sense-of-limits translates into other areas of life as well. And I think it does.
Learning limits is a good life lesson.
Lesson #2 – Winning the Long-Game
Because I was so much bigger than the kids, as an adult, I had the upper hand in our wrestling matches. If I wanted a victory, that’s how it would end. Every time. There’s simply no way Soren could win (at least when he was little). But I also wanted Soren to have some wins so he would continue to enjoy wrestling with me, because we both enjoyed the time together.
If Soren felt continually defeated, he might simply stop wrestling with me. The fun would thus end for both of us.
When Soren did his signature move and I was unable to buck him off my back, he felt like he won. When he escaped my grip, he won.
When he would periodically win, he would want to keep playing. And therefore, I won too, because we could continue to enjoy this time together, at least while it lasted. And, I was keenly aware the western sky hued orange on this beautiful phase of life.5
The key here is that we continued to enjoy play-wrestling together. Sometimes Soren won. Sometimes I won. Either way, we also have the opportunity to demonstrate to our kids how to act when we win. And, how to act when we lose. That is, in such a way that our counterpart wants to play with us again.
Also important, were the many parallel lessons on how to trash-talk properly. Taunting the enemy is part of the game. Seriously. Competitive banter serves to keep the mood light and playful… and humorous.
On the flip side, we all know people who are poor winners. They love winning so much, they are not fun to play with. They rub it in excessively when they win, not in a good-natured, teasing sort of way, but in an unbecoming, in-your-face way. They also sulk and have poor attitudes when they lose. They absolutely hate to lose, and it shows.
Socially, poor winners are those who dominate a game (or a relationship). Frankly, no one wants to play with this person, at least not the second or third time.
In the game of life, the real winners are those who keep getting invited to play. This is the art of socialization, playing in such a way that we get invited to the next game.
In a sense, playing the long game is playing a series of games.
It is crucial for kids to return to future games, especially with their peers, because it continues their socialization, allowing them to practice how to interact with others at the next level. This is how people learn to behave properly in society, through practice, an important long-term skill.
Kids who do not get invited back, begin to stagnate in their social skills relative to their peers. This, in turn, staves off future invitations to play, and continues a feedback loop, stagnating their socialization even further.
This is the essence of playing with our kids, that they learn the natural limits of harm, to themselves and others, and learn when to quit, before someone gets hurt. Kids who learn limits don’t get hurt as often and are less likely to hurt others.
Through play, we also demonstrate to our kids how to interact with others in such a way that they get invited to subsequent games. The invitation to return is the meta-game. We should all play, work, and live in such a way that we are welcomed back.
The hope is that these simple lessons translate into the broader spectrum of life as it unfolds upon our children. Simple lessons still apply, even as our children age into greater life complexity.
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- When Soren was younger, we often gave him physical challenges just prior to entering a restaurant. We called it, “Getting your energy out.”. He just needed to “run to that tree and back”… five times… while we timed how fast he was. Timing the run was key. It allowed him to impress us with his inevitable speed. Even now, at 14, Soren sometimes still needs to “get his energy out.”
- In the heat of the moment, I told Soren, “If you eat the toilet paper, you won’t have to wipe next time you go to the bathroom. It self-wipes on its way out.” He didn’t believe me, fortunately.
- Caveat – except when something unfortunate happens to me that involves some level of pain or discomfort. Then, my wife (Sofie) thinks it’s the funniest thing she has ever seen… as does our neighbor Hawley. Never have I seen two adults laugh so hard, nearly wetting their pants, as the time Sofie and Hawley watched me eat the vomit-flavored fake jellybean, thus wounding my inner child.
- Unless of course the social setting includes your wife and neighbor laughing uncontrollably at you. This doesn’t count.
- Several years have passed since I originally wrote this paragraph. The sun has since set on this phase of wrestling on the living room floor in our house. With some luck, it is only a pause, and I will once again wrestle with the new dawn of their kids, some years from now, should we still be around… if I am still able to get down to the floor… and back up.