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Father-Child Rough and Tumble Play. Is it all it's cracked up to be?

Father child rough and tumble play (RTP) has sometimes been proposed as a positive influence on children's development (Barth & Parke, 1993; Carson et al. 1993;  Paquette, 2004). However, recent Canadian research shows that frequent RTP may be either a positive or negative influence on children's behaviour depending on the way fathers manage rough play episodes.

In two related studies, Dr. Joseph Flanders, Research Director at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic - Montreal General Hospital found that frequent rough and tumble play with fathers was associated with more aggressive behaviour and poorer emotional regulation in children whose fathers did not play a what he termed a "dominant" role - a leadership role in which the father sets limits and regulates the flow of rough play episodes.

Defining Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play (RTP) is an umbrella term for active, physical play such as wrestling, play-fighting and chasing. Since parent-child RTP is so widely regarded as a "Dad thing" (although mothers also engage in physical play with their children) several threads of research have explored the unique role that RTP with fathers might play in children's development. Some researchers have suggested that RTP is an important component of father/child attachment (Paquette 2004), and that RTP influences children's peer competence (Field and Walden, 2008) and emotional regulation (Barth and Parke, 1993; Carson and Parke, 1996).

There have also been suggestions that RTP with fathers can help children learn to control aggressive feelings and behaviour. However one Canadian study, led by Daniel Paquette of the Department of Psychoeducation at the University of Montreal, found that higher levels of father-child RTP actually predicted slightly more aggressive behaviour in children (Paquette, et al. 2003). This led Paquette and his colleagues to call for research on quality of father-child RTP, particularly fathers' sensitivity and leadership in play situations.

The Latest Findings

In the past two years, psychologist Joseph Flanders, of the Department of Psychology at McGill University, working with Paquette and other colleagues, has published two studies which show that the role fathers take on during rough play episodes has a substantial impact on how RTP affects children's development.

The first study (Flanders et. al 2009) showed that preschoolers who engaged in frequent RTP with fathers who did not play the aforementioned "dominant" role tended to be more aggressive with peers. However, when fathers set limits and regulated the flow of RTP in a sensitive way, high frequency of father-child RTP was not associated with increased aggressive behaviour in children.

In a five-year follow-up study with the same group of children Flanders found that school-aged children whose fathers had not played the "dominant" role in RTP continued to display both higher levels of aggression with peers and poorer ability to regulate their emotions (Flanders er al. 2010). 

Flanders suggests that fathers' ability to regulate the flow of play may be more important in rough physical play than in other play contexts. "Because preschool aged children are just learning how to regulate their own behavior, these [RTP] interactions can be especially challenging," he says. "An optimally firm and assertive playmate is likely to be more important in this ‘‘hot'' play context compared with ‘‘cooler'' play contexts such as a board game."

Flanders' most recent study was published in May 2010 in the Journal of Family Violence. Read the abstract.

References

Barth JM, Parke RD. 1993. Parent-child relationship influences on children's transition to school. Merrill-Palmer Q J Dev Psychol 39:173-195.

Carson J, Burks V, Parke RD. 1993. Parent-child physical play: Determinants and consequences. In: MacDonald K (ed). Children's Play in Society. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. p 197-220.

Flanders, J. L., Leo, V., Paquette, D., Pihl, R. O., & Séguin, J. R. (2009). Rough-and-tumble play and the regulation of aggression: an observational study of father-child play dyads. Aggressive Behavior.

Flanders, JL,  Simard, M, Paquette D., Parejnt, S., Vitaro, F., Pilh, R., Séguin, JR., Rough-and-Tumble Play and the Development of Physical Aggression and Emotion Regulation: A Five-Year Follow-Up Study. Journal of Family Violence, 25: 357-367

Paquette D, Carbonneau R, Dubeau D, Bigras M, Tremblay RE. 2003b. Prevalence of father-child rough-and-tumble play and physical aggression in preschool children. Eur J Psychol Educ 18:171-189.

Paquette D. 2004. Theorizing the father-child relationship: Mechanisms and developmental outcomes. Hum Dev 47:193-219.