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The Simple Joy of Roughhousing With My Son

Someday, my son will forget how to speak this language with me. He’ll get too big and feel too embarrassed to give dad a hug, let alone a headlock. But for now? It's on.

A Saturday afternoon at home. An open book on my lap. A cat curled next to me on the couch. All is quiet. A little too quiet. The attack must be imminent.

Sure enough, here come running footsteps and a shout. The boy jumps, arms outstretched, pushing me over. The cat dashes away. The boy bares his teeth, grunts, clambers onto my back.

I didn’t choose the tussle life. The tussle life chose me.

When he wants a book or a snack, Uno or charades, my son asks nicely. There is no request for wrestling. Player two simply joins the game, and the battle begins.

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Off the couch we roll, a controlled fall to the carpet. He scrambles to his feet and attacks again, leaping onto my chest. I catch him as he lands, slowing his momentum enough to stop his forehead from bashing into the corner of the toy shelf.

This is most of my job during roughhousing: preventing injury.

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My son is a boy of big appetites. He stuffs his mouth full of spaghetti and meatballs. He gulps glasses of water. He tells the same joke over and over, laughing himself silly. And when we wrestle, he throws his body into mine repeatedly, like a sentient battering ram.

There’s an elegance in physical play. The same things that make playground basketball fun — wordless communication, adapting to the movements of another person, teamwork — are also true for family wrastlin’.

That body is both heavy and light. Landing on my back, knees first, he feels like a nosetackle leading the dogpile. But I can lift him over my head, spin him around in the air and swoop him down to land gently on the couch, in a kind of Lucha Libre triple lutz.

I’ve been lifting the weight of him for five years. Before he learned to crawl, every part of his body was stacked with fat rolls, like the plastic rings he chewed on. Now he’s stocky and stretched tall, towering above most kids his age. When he meets another large boy, he is overjoyed, a puppy at the dog park, straining against his leash. At a campground last summer, he spent hours tackling a kid from Missoula. The two of them laughed until they could barely breathe, long into the twilight.

At home, without another giant preschooler to bullrush, it’s me he pulls into the ring. He circles me, looking for weakness. He throws his shoulder into the backs of my knees, felling the giant. His will is focused into a single goal of making me cry uncle. This is serious business for him, elemental and necessary. He holds nothing back. It’s his Super Bowl.

For me, it’s the Pro Bowl. Half speed is too fast. Like Marty said to Rust in True Detective, it’s awfully damn arrogant to hold back in a fight. That may be true between two men who are trying to kill each other. But the boy and I are not enemies, and so he bests me again and again. It’s not about letting him win to protect his ego from experiencing defeat. It’s about keeping him interested long enough to burn off his built-up testosterone. To punch himself out. Playing war leads to peace.

Wrastlin’ is simple and pure. There is no conscious thought besides: “Don’t smoosh the child.” It’s just plain fun.

Once his energy is depleted, his mother and sister are safe. Though she’s nearly six years older, Sis outweighs him by only 15 pounds, and five of that is Rapunzel hair. She’s all arms and legs, no plump cushion of fat to blunt the jab of little elbows. (Happily, I own such a cushion.) My wife grew up with sisters and lacks the sense memory of childhood rambunctiousness. Although she rode a big wheel and climbed trees, she didn’t throw hands. When her son snarls like a bull and launches the crown of his head into my gut, she covers her eyes in horror. This response is not atypical.

And so I lay my body down, an action-movie hero keeping the big boss at bay long enough to save innocent civilians.

It’s not really a sacrifice. There’s an elegance in physical play. The same things that make playground basketball fun — wordless communication, adapting to the movements of another person, teamwork — are also true for family wrastlin’.

Even though he is compelled to lock arms with me, my son keeps the fight clean. No sucker punches. No pinching or hair pulling. No Draymond kicks to the nads. He would never think of throwing me (or Mankind) off the cage.

The truth is that, for me, roughhousing is relief. I might struggle to explain to him how the tooth fairy lugs around a sack of molars every night. I might tire of playing traffic cop all day, denying him donuts, chocolate milk, and endless loops of the Despicable Me franchise. But wrastlin’ is simple and pure. There is no conscious thought besides, Don’t smoosh the child. It’s just plain fun.

Someday, he’ll forget how to speak this language with me. He’ll get too big, feel too embarrassed to give ol’ dad a hug, let alone a headlock. 

And as we twist and squirm and roar, we build a language, a way of relating to each other that only we share. He learns to feint, to misdirect. I learn to counter his attacks. He jabs, I parry. When I yelp in pain, he learns the step too far. On our faces: joy, surprise, trust.

Someday, he’ll forget how to speak this language with me. He’ll get too big, feel too embarrassed to give ol’ dad a hug, let alone a headlock. I lost that language with my dad when I became an awkward and surly adolescent. My son helped me remember the forgotten alphabet.

I repay the favor by pinning his shoulders to the floor and tickling his ribs, eventually allowing him to escape for another onslaught. Showing him that I understand, that I see him, that I’m present, that my attention is nowhere else, that I’m more than discipline and instruction, that I’ll take all he can give without giving up, and that I love him enough to kick his ass.