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09 Aug, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

It’s time to relax and let boys roughhouse

Having worked in a school for many years, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to not only see boys at play but to witness the concern it causes parents and educators.

Boys naturally engage in play that is physical, competitive and action packed. They push and shove, put each other in headlocks and punch each other in the shoulder just as a way of greeting a friend. They race, climb and like to compete. They will taunt each other and express themselves through action. They will argue with each other but hold no grudges.

Often, this type of play is categorized as rough, aggressive and something that requires adult intervention. Many parents and teachers (females especially) are uncomfortable with the way boys interact with one another and are often worried that things “will get out of hand”.

In the past, boys were encouraged to blow off a little steam during playtime but, these days a “hands-off” approach to play has limited the natural ways boys express themselves. Games like tag and even soccer have been compromised because of strict sets of rules that prevent tagging “too hard” or elbowing players out of the way.

But boys’ friendships develop through this kind of healthy, normal play. Their games are usually highly structured, governed by rules and their sense of justice is well developed. In fact, they haven’t really evolved that much over time. Star Wars, superheroes and even pirates are similar to cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers from years ago. This kind of creative play lets boys tap into the fantasy of being whoever or whatever they want. Some of the play may involve weapons or super powers but really, it’s all about beating the bad guy, and what is wrong with that? Don’t we all kind of want to beat the bad guy? But while girls may prefer to conquer with a magic wand, boys save the day with a Nerf gun.

Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, says parents and teachers “have a belief — call it an urban myth — that if boys play this way it will desensitize them to violence and they will grow up to be more violent. But it is a misunderstanding of what makes adults violent.”

Criminals are not made on the playground; boys are naturally drawn to play that may look aggressive, but play is not aggressive unless there is an intention to hurt someone else. Most boys are simply active and it is important to differentiate between the two. Boys who grow up to be violent are the byproduct of several risk factors over time including poverty and abuse. The average boy is not exposed to such risk factors and is not going to become a violent murderer.

Jane Katch, a teacher who wrote Under Deadman’s Skin, a book about her experience in dealing with violent play in the classroom, suggests instead of banning “violent” fantasy play from the home or classroom, have a discussion with boys about what kind of play creates turmoil and allow them to reach a consensus about what is appropriate. Teach them about the implications of real violence and emphasize the value of pretend play.

Katch says that ignoring or suppressing this type of behaviour will only cause boys to find sneaky ways to play in a way that feels natural to them.

Being physical helps a boy understand boundaries, the likes and dislikes of others and ultimately learn how to adapt to rules and regulations. As long as no one is getting hurt, allow a little roughhousing. Set up places in the classroom or basement of your home where boys can play freely without constraints. We need to let boys be boys.

Books about boys

Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play, by Jane Katch.

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Michael Kindlon, Dan & Thompson

Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, William Pollack


Michael Moody is a mentor to many boys at Lower Canada College where he works as a coach and supervisor of students.

Kerry Ballard is an educator with 18 years experience, the mother of three boys and a Grade 4 teacher at St. George’s School in Westmount. 

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