You may know by now that play is as important to childhood development as reading. We may think this is common sense, but some of us need help getting started. Even though I “wrastled” with my dad and grandpa growing up, I did not pass along that tradition to my firstborn right away. He was colicky as a baby, so the natural tackling, throwing, and wrestling games got put on the back-burner. But once he grew out of that, I had to consciously reset my brain to wrestle with him, and generally be playful. Thankfully we have a great playful relationship now. The wrestling continues with my second born daughter and our youngest son. In this post I’ll share 10 reasons why you should wrestle with your kids. I’ll also throw in some rules we use at the end to make it fun and safe.
- Wrestling makes your children smarter. Wrestling helps the production of BDNF in the brain. I don’t know exactly what BDNF does, but there are plenty of science papers, like this one from Jaak Panskepp et al., that can explain what it is. In a nutshell, BDNF production helps with the part of our brain that controls executive function such as self-control, emotional regulation, and the ability to focus. Brain development of this kind is invaluable to the growing child. The science simply backs up what we experience when we wrestle with our children: their brains are being put to the test with on the spot physical problem solving. Segue to #2:
- It develops their problem solving skills. More than problem solving on paper with ideas or math problems, wrestling compels the participant to problem solve in the physical world while getting a workout. Children are confronted with a leg lock, or being able to get out of the bottom when someone is on top. They have to ask questions like, “what do I need to do to stand up, escape, and pin my dad?” “How can I put his arm behind his back?” “How can I fake my dad out and take him down?” “When do I need to be explosive with my energy, and when do I need to reserve my energy?” We may feel like throwing a bunch of word problems at our child will make him or her better at problem solving, which it will. Throwing them into a leg lock will help their problem solving skills even more. As they get better at wrestling, they will understand what it means to persevere through a problem. Wrestling gives them a tangible way to view the benefit of their perseverance. When they persevere, they get dad in a headlock, or pin him, or they are able to get out of a hold etc.
- It tests physical strength. I remember being in early elementary school trying my best to lift heavy objects. I remember my dad’s olympic weight bar with a 45 lb. plate on each end. I remember heavy rocks in the back of our back yard. I remember trying to lift my dad or my older cousins. I knew I wouldn’t be able to lift them, but that did not stop me from testing my strength! Testing the limits of physical strength was an important aspect of my childhood development. I can see it in my two older children when they pick each other up, and then go and carry number three around. They have fun lifting their friends too. My oldest recently told me that he felt good that he was able to help his classmates lift giant snow boulders to build snow forts. Word quickly spread throughout the playground: if you need your boulders moved to construct an igloo, he is the one to call. In the elementary age years, physical strength testing is a necessary part of a child’s development. I present wrestling to you as one of the best tests of your child’s physical strength. If I have side control (lying perpendicular, my chest on his or her chest, obviously not putting all my weight on the child) the child has to use all his or her strength to create a little space, turn and shrimp out. I remember being able to get out from under my dad when I was younger. It was a great accomplishment for me. Wrestling afforded me the arena to test my physical strength in positions I would not have put myself in willingly. It not only tested my physical strength, but it built my physical strength.
- It builds physical strength. Whether they are attacking or defending, they are building muscle while wrestling. For example, when attacking they may grab my arm or grab the back of my head for control. They are building grip strength, forearm strength, and strength in their latissimus dorsi. When defending, they will use all their leg strength for balance if standing, or to regain control if on the ground. If they are really trying, their legs will get tired. This building of physical strength is crucial in our sedentary world of computers, video games, television, and long commutes sitting in a car. Why else is this kind of fun exercise essential? Well, recess has been shortened, kids don’t walk or bike to school as much as they should, processed foods are ubiquitous, there is sugar added to everything, childhood obesity is ever rising etc., &c. The health benefits of building physical strength and a great cardio workout are obvious.
- You don’t need any special equipment. The sports one would typically play at home require some form of equipment, such as a hoop, a ball, a net, a racket and the like. Playing tag barefoot doesn’t require anything special, but that is the exception. Wrestling can be done virtually anywhere and it’s free. You don’t even have to go anywhere. It’s instant and always available right in your home. Wrestling on carpet or a rug helps. You can even do it a little on a big enough bed. If you get a little more serious and want to increase safety, you can look at some mats on Amazon. These interlocking mats are easy to clean, easy to set up, and easy to store.
- You don’t need any special talent to wrestle. There is no real learning curve in wrestling. Of course over time, your child will improve. Most other sports have more of a learning curve. For example, it’s not so intuitive to throw a perfect spiral in football. But everyone knows something about wrestling from about the time they can walk!
- Wrestling provides social and emotional benefits. With the great benefit of nurturing connection and no personal space, your child will have to employ his or her emotional discernment skills. I’m guessing that this will be even more beneficial to children who may be a little more on the shy and introverted side since it will force them into close contact. They have to read non verbal emotions. They will have to develop eye contact with you. They will naturally learn when to attack and when to defend. They will learn when to ease up and when to use more strength. You will actually show them how to play when you even out the match by not using all your strength. Even older brother baboons let their little brothers wrestle with them by not using their full strength (source: see chapter 6). If there is anything on your child’s mind, or if there is some lingering stress from the day (perhaps at school), wrestling is a great refuge and relief from the day. Emotions will naturally surface when wrestling. Your child may suddenly become frustrated, or use more strength than usual, or cry foul on something you did. This is normal, and the good thing is that you are there ready to work through your child’s emotions with him or her. Whenever an emotional event occurs during our rough and tumble play, I am always thankful for the opportunity to connect and talk with my child. I often wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t wrestled. Would this great opportunity of a cry and a hug and a talk have emerged?
- Wrestling with your child is safe. When you wrestle with them, you can decide where to do it and what the rules are. You can watch for potentially dangerous objects to move out the way. You can use your strength to keep them from hurting you or themselves. When my oldest and second born wrestle with each other without me there, it can be potentially harmful since they cannot see the dangers like I can. I’ve instituted a rule that they cannot wrestle each other without me supervising, even on the mats! You can keep it safe, and they will learn eventually to keep it safe with others their own size.
- Your child will learn to take risks in a safe environment. Within the framework of your wrestling time with your child, they will eventually learn to take risks. After getting out of a hold, they may spin around you, take your back, and get their hooks in you. Or they may surprise you by faking you out and taking a hold of your arm, or even twisting your arm. These are signs of progress. When this happens, I like to encourage them by making myself do ten push-ups: “I must be getting slower and weaker. I had better do ten push-ups.” We all get a laugh, and they are encouraged.
- Wrestling will teach your child how to handle themselves with others. Not only does it build confidence, but it will help children stay calm and know what to do if they get into an aggressive situation with another child. They will be able to defend themselves. If they wrestle with you regularly, they will be used to being held or even being on their back and won’t freak out. Instead, they can calmly protect themselves and get out of the hold, and get off their back. They then can put the aggressor in a hold until he calms down. This will keep your child and the aggressor safe. Your child will also be able to help another person who is being bullied by wrapping up the bully like a pretzel and letting the victim escape. The confidence they possess will act as a deterrent to bullying before it even starts. The confidence they have will also help them deescalate a situation before it gets out of hand. The confidence they have will enable them to be advocates for others.
So as you can see, there are plenty of reasons to wrestle with your children. You don’t need any of these reasons if it’s just a fun thing that you enjoy doing with your children, but the benefits above will hopefully encourage you and your children to get grappling. As a side bonus, wrestling helps children who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Wrestling, along with diet, sleep, and more extensive outdoor exercise should ameliorate the symptoms associated with ADHD.
Wrestling in our family is just something we do. My children are fairly calm and mellow, and our wrestling also takes this form. We are not going crazy, but we do like to polish our skills with each other. It’s a fun activity that’s always available for us.
Some of the rules we use when we wrestle are:
- Do give hugs and kisses.
- No tickling (tickling time is a separate activity).
- Do connect.
- Tap out when tired or hurt or can’t get out. We use two taps or more on the opponent’s body. We do not tap on the floor since that can be confused with wrestling sounds, i.e., other body parts naturally coming in contact with the floor. If all else fails just call out “tap!”
- Don’t frustrate, exasperate, or provoke your children.
- Be safe.
- Make it challenging.
- Challenge the children to come up with a game related to wrestling.
- The children usually win.
- Offer resistance so that they may feel their strength being tested.
- Practice a move of the week.
- Pay attention especially when strong feelings emerge.