Dads, Horse Around with Your Kids!

Vigorous rough and tumble play with their father is great fun for most kids. Research has now found out that it is not only fun, but helps children learn to regulate their emotions.
Text: Matt Stevenson

One of the most influential theories in the field of developmental psychology in the last century is Attachment Theory. According to Attachment Theory, early parent-child interaction in early infancy forms the foundation for children to develop internalized models of the parent-child relationship and their bond with each parent. When parents are sensitive and responsive to children’s needs and give the child warmth and love, they provide the child with a “secure base” in which the child knows that he or she is loved, protected, and safe with that parent. Children who have established this secure base are then comfortable exploring their environments when encouraged by parents.

A new view suggests that mothers provide children more of the secure base and fathers provide children more encouragement to explore. The so-called Activation Theory proposes that this style of highly arousing, destabilizing play from fathers provides children with an environment where they are very emotionally and physiologically aroused during play, such as wrestling with dad. I call this style of fathering “Activative Fathering.” Importantly, however, as every parent has probably seen, when children are very excited in these situations there can be “too little,” “just right,” and “too much.” Fathers who are too rough or do not stop wrestling when the child has had enough may overstimulate the child to the point where the activity is no longer fun or excitement turns into anger.

Socially appropriate “aggression

Indeed much of rough-and-tumble play may be socially appropriate “aggression.” In this way, children are given an arousing environment to practice regulating their emotions and arousal to participate in vigorous play without resorting to socially inappropriate aggression such as violence. One example might be when your child is teased on the playground and can choose to tease the other child back (socially appropriate aggression) or punch the other child (violence).

We observed mothers, fathers, and children interacting in their home and recorded activative parenting from both mothers and fathers. In this way, we were able to ask, does activative fathering have a special influence on children above and beyond that of the same behaviors from mothers? We found that, yes, activative fathering related to an improved ability of children to stay on task during a frustrating task and to improved social skills of children. Support for the unique role of fathers!

Activative fathering and mothering

Not so fast. As every parent knows, context matters. What works with children on the playground may not be the same type of parenting that works for homework. In the next part of our research, we studied activative parenting with one-year-old children. We had fathers and mothers teach their children a number of tasks during a laboratory session (e.g., hit keys on a xylophone, hammer in shapes on a toy) and then looked to see if we could identify different ways that fathers and mothers interacted with children. We found one group of fathers that we identified as using activative parenting, but we also found a group of activative mothers as well. Our first study observed families at home. Our second study observed families in the lab with instructions to teach the child toys that were beyond their ability to do alone. Context matters. Perhaps activative fathering happens mostly when fathers are engaged in physical rough-and-tumble play, which they may do more at home than in the lab. Maybe both mothers and fathers are activative parents in other ways during teaching.

Remember to pay attention to your child’s queues

We have developed a new system to rate activative parenting during the same teaching task in the second study and have finished analyzing videos for 191 father-child and mother-child interactions at 12 months of age. We are currently following families from this study when the second-borns are 7-10 years old, funded by the Jacobs Foundation. We ask parents and children to report on parent-child relationships, sibling conflict, and children’s social skills, emotional and behavioral problems. We will investigate if activative parenting in different contexts is unique to fathers, and whether activative fathering has an influence on long-term indicators of healthy development.

So dads, go ahead and roughhouse with your kids! It’ll help them learn to regulate their emotions. Remember, however, to pay attention to your child’s queues and don’t overdo it.