Growing up in a divorced household, I would see my dad every other weekend and on Wednesday nights. Even though it didn’t happen all the time, on the weekends when my younger brother and I saw him, all three of us would engage in some type of physical activity. We would play “horse” at the basketball court, practice hitting and shagging baseballs, and periodically we’d wrestle — roughhousing just came naturally to us. With our mom, we didn’t do any of those physical activities.
On our own, my brother and I would play with our G.I. Joes, Transformers, He-Man, and Star Wars action figures. We got dirty. We dug holes to China (we only got 3 feet deep). We played soldiers. We wrestled, did “karate,” and essentially physically tortured each other.
When I got married, I knew that when I had a son, we would do the same thing. There would be practice hitting baseballs, learning how to shoot hoops, mountain bike riding, and playing street hockey, but most of all, there would be that physical contact that my brother and I had with our dad. I couldn’t wait to roughhouse with that little guy.
I’m sure you can guess what happened. We had two daughters. Instead of sports equipment cluttering my house, I have Barbie dolls, Baby Alive dolls, American Girl dolls, Disney princess dolls, and enough stuffed animals to fill a small warehouse. Also, everything is pink: There’s pink pillows, pink dresses, pink shoes, pink underwear — heck, even pink toothbrushes. I’m outnumbered at the dinner table, where I can barely get a word in.
That said, my girls aren’t really girly girls. And I also decided that I would be the type of dad that roughhouses with his daughters, to the chagrin of my wife. We have a game that we play called “Panther.” Basically, the girls are vicious panthers who keep me from capturing them by either kicking, punching, or straight wrestling me. It’s a lot of fun, for all three of us. My wife, on the other hand, hates it. She doesn’t understand the need for a dad and his daughters to have physical contact through roughhousing.
Here are the five things that I’ve learned about how important it is for a dad to have safe physical contact with his daughters.
Men bond through meaningful physical contact.
I’m bad at expressing myself verbally — I tend to nod and grunt my way through conversations. But when I get a chance to roughhouse with my girls, no verbal communication is needed, except when I’m actually hurt and I need to beg for them to stop torturing me. Whether we realize it or not, my daughters and I are having a bonding experience that words can’t describe.
Girls (unfortunately) need to know how to defend themselves.
Despite the awareness and advancements made by the #MeToo movement, women and girls still end up in situations where men can overpower them physically and cause them harm. I want my daughters to know how to defend themselves, and roughhousing gives them a chance to learn this while in a safe environment: I let them “practice” on me. At times, I instruct them to kick, bite, claw, and, yes, even kick me in the “tenders” (as my youngest likes to say), so they have a better chance of defending themselves if, God forbid, it’s necessary.
Daughters need physical touch from their dads.
Since my daughters were born, I loved to hold them, kiss them, and cuddle with them. I put them to bed every night with a hug, kiss, and a prayer. They are my world. But for some reason, roughhousing provides that extra physical touch daughters need. If done appropriately and safely, it creates trust and a sense of closeness that those other physical gestures just can’t compare to. Oddly enough, there’s a sacred intimacy roughhousing establishes that bonds a father to a daughter and vice versa.
Roughhousing is fun.
My daughters and I go to the park often and play “monster” on the jungle gym a few times a month. Each time, we chase one another up and down and all over the park while they’re laughing all the way. They enjoy the running around and being “captured” and then tickled till they can’t laugh any more. All the while, we’re having a fun time, building memories. For us, roughhousing is a way of growing closer while having fun.
Roughhousing allows dads to relate with their daughters.
Families need dads. We need Moms, too, of course (and I should know — I have three of my own: birth, step, and in-law), but dads who are invested in their children can relate to them in a way that is unique and valuable. We’re built differently than mom, and we interact in ways that are different from mom’s. My daughters know that I’m their protector and their first line of defense. Like their mom, I’m also dedicated to making them the best versions of themselves.
Just the other day, when I was busy and my daughters asked to play “panther,” I told them to play with their mom. They looked at each other and incredulously responded, “Mom doesn’t do that!” And they’re right. My wife, their mother, has never roughhoused with them, and that’s OK. I don’t expect her to, and neither should she. That’s my role in our family. That’s my area of expertise. And that’s my daddy-and-daughter time, and that’s the way we like it.
At the end of the day, I want my daughters to know that they can trust and feel comfortable with me as their father. We bond in a different way, a way that is still filled with love and communicates my care for them, and that’s OK.
Zachery Román is an L.A.-based father of two daughters. When he’s not roughhousing with his daughters, he’s having “tea time” with them and Uni, their stuffed pink unicorn.