Rough House

There is a markedly distinct sound that breaks from my wife Mary’s lips any time she wanders around the corner to find me and the kids in a whirling dervish- it’s the same sound one makes when breaching the water after a long spell underneath or if you see your coffee mug sliding off the dashboard in slo-mo. That truncated, involuntary inhale only sudden fear can coax. It’s funny, her mom does the exact same thing. And my mom, too. I have seen each one of them stand by skittishly as the death-defying antics reach a fever pitch, half-laughing and unsure. On more than a few occasions they have excused themselves from the premises, the strain proving to be more than they could bear. The kids and I go on undeterred, our dance with death in full swing. There is such a stark disparity between each of our experiences in that moment- myself, the kids, and Mary- that there must be something to be learned from it. So, why rough house?

At the outset, I’ll just confess that I have no idea why I am (seemingly naturally) compelled to this kind of play. Hurl them across the room onto the bed? Tickle ’em till they can barely breathe? Swing them upside-down by their ankles like a pendulum? Check. Check. Check. It would be convenient for me at this point to claim I only engage in this behavior because “the kids love it!”, but that’s not exactly the truth. It’s definitely part of the reason that I KEEP doing it and I’d like to think I’d stop if they hated it. But, ultimately, there was a moment in time where I was holding my two-year old and something in the recesses of my brain fired off an impulse that said, “I bet it would be awesome to chuck this bundle of joy through the ether like I’m some kind of maniacal paperboy”. And I did. And they loved it. And they begged for me to do it over and over again. And I did…


Maybe the answer lies somewhere in my maleness, like there’s some kind of sublimated aggression hidden within the hijinx. Or maybe it’s my manhood, a prescription of the social narrative that has written “rowdy” into even my affections. I don’t know (and how could I, really? That’s the thing about your subconscious, you know?).

Whatever the cause, it seems that nearly all of the recent research into the subject indicates that horseplay has overwhelmingly positive effects. As a teaser, some of the outcomes include:

Heightened emotional intelligence
Use of restraint
Risk-taking and risk assessment

I won’t belabor the point (because it’s not what I’m after), and also because Brett and Kate McKay, the minds behind “The Art of Manliness”, have already produced a fantastic article on the topic- “The Importance of Roughhousing With Your Kids”. I highly recommend it.

My line of inquiry, though, came from a thought I had one afternoon in the middle of a particularly raucous scrum with the munchkins. As I whipped them to and fro, into a frenzy, as I towered over them as an indomitable hulk of a thing, I thought…

“At all other time in their lives, this encounter would be unbelievably petrifying”

The interrelation between immense power and benevolence is nearly always skewed to the negative.

I mean, when’s the last time you heard about a brother with a ton of money, a killer bod, good looks, and a bazooka… and he turned out to be a real peach? There’s a reason that Bruce Wayne only exists in the comics. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The narrative is commonplace- from our mistrust of Big Business to the theological grappling that surrounds the Problem of Evil- surplus strength is always suspect. Heck, we even bristle at kindness that comes on too strong- “You’re being really nice to me. What are you up to”? And while there is plenty of practical wisdom in the adages and certainly a small mountain of evidence to prove it, I can’t help but think that these misgivings represent a regrettable loss of innocence and the wisdom that comes with it. After all, some of the most sublime aspects of the human experience are wholly overwhelming….

To tremble upon being kissed…
To stare, slack- jawed into the sunset and be dwarfed by the immensity of Life’s own soul…
To feel the presence of God…
To be laid to waste by Love…

The weight of glory also crushes.

But, if we’re already in half-guard, suspicious, and ready to defend whenever these massive moments pose their joyful threat, we are sure to miss out. Sure, you’ll spare your heart the risk of falling from such great heights, but it may never take flight. You’ll never have the wind knocked out of you… and never be left breathless.

We must remember again the lesson that the children teach us in their reckless glee- the lesson that we intuitively teach them with every headlock and bear hug.

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'Rough House' have 12 comments

  1. February 12, 2015 @ 2:36 AM Jannette Mullen

    Wow! Bret, this was a great read. Just reading it my tummy was upset by the closeness to tragedy. I do know as a kid I loved rough housing. But as a mom it makes me gasp! Thank you for this perspective! Love nana!


    • February 13, 2015 @ 10:42 PM Bret Spears

      So you’re saying my writing literally made you nauseated?! 😉


  2. February 12, 2015 @ 8:04 AM Thomas Mullen

    This brings back such fantastic memories, not of my parents, but of my older brother who played with me and threw me around my room as a young boy. Like me, they will never forget this bonding.


    • February 13, 2015 @ 10:46 PM Bret Spears

      Very cool to hear, Tom. I can definitely think of some cousins that put me through the ringer as well (although, perhaps not as lovingly as the article describes).


  3. February 13, 2015 @ 10:31 AM Eric Hyde

    Wow, man. This is great. You are dangerously close to becoming my favorite writer (at least living).


    • February 15, 2015 @ 4:29 PM Bret Spears

      You are far too kind. On the other hand, I am significantly relieved to hear I’m not dangerously close to becoming your favorite non-living writer! Homicide is not on the list of items I wish to inspire.


  4. February 14, 2015 @ 10:16 AM Non-gasping Mom

    My dad always played rough with my sister and me. I loved it, and still do to this day. There are often times, when not rough-housing with my own kids, that I bring my husband in on the fun. Usually he thinks I’ve lost my mind, but the kids love it and deep down, I know he does too. What a great article. Thank you!


    • February 15, 2015 @ 4:33 PM Bret Spears

      The family pile-on! I love it. So glad you liked the article.


  5. February 15, 2015 @ 11:35 AM Jennie

    My three sisters and I have a rough house-lovin’ dad. But I was the scaredy-cat, the oldest one there to do the gasping if Mom wasn’t home. As soon as I saw one of my sisters fly through the air, I made myself scarce, not wanting to get scooped up next. And even with that fear, that hesitance, I knew like I knew my name that my dad would never let me go, would always make sure I was safe. Best part about rough housing for my little girl self? My 36-year-old self still knows that.


    • February 15, 2015 @ 4:35 PM Bret Spears

      Gosh, this is just beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing, Jennie. Very profound.


  6. February 18, 2015 @ 8:54 AM Michael Lynch

    I’m a stay at home dad as well. My little girl loves to be flipped around, thrown on the couch and rolled over. She laughs especially hard at the “pendulum” by her ankles. This is the first I’ve read your writing and I will continue to. Thanks for your hard work.


    • February 19, 2015 @ 1:38 PM Bret Spears

      It’s always good to hear from another brother in the trenches. Thanks very much for reading. Glad to have you with us, Mike.


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