Most parents can reason that roughhousing helps children develop physically by providing a means of vigorous exercise but, truth be told, that is the least substantive effect that it has on them. In roughhousing, the less observable benefits will have the longest lasting returns.
Believe it or not, these sorts of outwardly aggressive activities serve to enhance the participants’ capacity for social awareness. When children engage in rough play with one another they learn to abide by a set of predetermined unspoken rules. For instance, if one child starts to cry, the other stops and checks if he or she is okay. After which, they usually go back to resuming the same activity that they did before.
This is evidence that the underlying social benefits of roughhousing are vast. In order for a child to have the presence of mind to stop the activity he must be aware of his partner’s feelings and provide an appropriate response. They process an incredible amount of information in terms of their partner’s facial cues and body language to determine the appropriate level of aggressiveness. This empathy is in the interest of both participants because if one side gets seriously injured then the game cannot continue and both lose out on fun.
Occasionally anger will arise from one of the children involved. It is important to note that anger is not the result being physically hurt but rather it emerges from the feeling of being slighted by their opponent. When a child is thrown down to the ground by his partner he is more likely to become angry (and therefore physically retaliate) if they think that their partner had malicious intent. On the other hand, if they are thrown down and get hurt but realize that it was an accident they don’t become angry. In this way each of the parties gets an understanding that emotions and physical discomfort may have little correlation and that accidents do happen.
The more that children experience this distinction the better they become at reading their partners’ motives. When compared to their non-rough peers, children that have been roughhousing since they could walk are much more likely to be able to distinguish malice from an accident and are therefore able to react appropriately. This beneficial lesson lasts past childhood and can have tremendous social consequences that can carry over into adult life.
As children, many of us were told, “Never talk to strangers.” We were also told that strangers can come in innumerable forms, that everyone we did not directly know was to be considered a stranger, and that they could therefore be a danger to our well being. In the years that followed this method of teaching children personal safety became known as “stranger danger.” And while it made sense on a surface level and served to quell the fears of parents, it did very little to actually protect children from adult predators. Unfortunately, today this antiquated method is still being taught as the primary personal safety tool in many kids’ martial arts and self defense schools.
When peering further into this flawed maxim of never talking to strangers we see the problems that emerge. First, it just doesn’t work. Kids strive to mimic their parents as a natural way of learning. The traditional “stranger danger” training goes completely against the example that parents set for their children. When a parent is asked for directions by a stranger you never hear them say, “Stop! I don’t know you! Don’t come any closer!” If a parent does not do it, there is absolutely no chance that a child will do it either. It is hard enough to get kids to habitually say “please” and “thank you,” let alone assert themselves in a way that they have never seen from their fundamental role model.
The second issue is that stranger danger is just not practical. If a child is in a bad situation and their parents are not around, who is the first person that has the ability to help that child? Most likely a police officer or fire fighter will not be in the immediate area. In the vast majority of cases it will be an unknown individual who will help the child.
In my opinion the most detrimental aspect of stranger danger training is that it instills a sense of mistrust in others. The training that is meant to keep kids safe can quickly turn into a factor that stifles their social growth and development. The chance that a child will get abducted by an adult predator is incredibly small. However, the chance that they will benefit from learning to trust others is almost certain.