The Teacher's Story

"WHO'S READY for a tug-of-war?" five-year-old Kyle called out. In no time, three boys were pulling hard on a jump rope against three eager challengers. For a few seconds Kyle's trio had the edge; then suddenly everyone was tumbling on the grass amid laughter and friendly wrestling. Children need to blow off steam after a long, harsh winter that has kept us mostly indoors. But with Kyle at the helm, they never seem to run out of energy, and the roughhousing does concern me.

In fact, I feel like we're seeing another side of Kyle. He's been a delightful member of the group all year. His boundless energy and enthusiasm are contagious, as is his natural curiosity. He has now emerged as the leader of spring shenanigans. The other boys admire him all the more, so they tend to seek him out. It's great that they're all having fun, but the possibility of someone getting hurt, as well as the change in Kyle, makes me uneasy. Even though the spirit of their play is hardly menacing, I'm wondering whether our emphasis on outdoor play has upset the applecart. Once we go inside, it takes Kyle and his buddies quite a while to settle down. Should I be discouraging their aggressive exuberance before it gets out of hand?

The Parent's Story

KYLE HAS ALWAYS been a great kid, but he's been getting awfully rambunctious lately. It's not that he would intentionally hurt anyone, but the way he plays with his friends has begun to worry me. The boys are not exactly fighting but roughhousing, butting one another like football players, jumping on top of each other and wrestling, especially outdoors. My husband says it's just the way boys are. I guess he's right - it's fun play, but it concerns me that my son is almost always the one to get the rough stuff going. He seems to know which kids will welcome it, whether he is playing with the boys he knows on the block or new companions in the park. Fortunately, so far, no one has gotten hurt or upset. In fact, they keep coming back for more. Kyle is more popular than ever with his school friends, judging by the calls he's getting to "come over and play." Of course, we don't know for sure if he has been feeling his oats in school too. Earlier reports from the teacher have been glowing. At our winter conference, she called Kyle "calm and cooperative." I wouldn't want this recent burst of aggression to spoil all that. I think his teacher needs an update from me, but I'm almost afraid to call.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment Kyle's current behavior is not cause for alarm. Many boys his age love to wrestle and roughhouse, so this sort of friendly display of aggression is developmentally expected and usually harmless (though boys who prefer quieter pursuits with their friends are doing just fine too).

What can the parents do?

The other boys clearly don't view Kyle as a bully. His friendly horseplay only makes them admire him more and seek out his company. In contrast, hurtful, aggressive children are not likely to have such loyal friends. But the teacher is correct about the need to set guidelines and limits for this kind of play. She knows how important it is to protect children from getting hurt, even by accident. It might be wise to enlist Kyle as a leader and supporter of the rules. Also with his help, she could organize some safe contact sports or games for those who want to participate. A supervised tug-of-war would be fine. Activities could offer Kyle and his energetic pals some of the rough-and-- tumble play they need, but in a more controlled, safer way.

What can the teacher do?

It's more difficult to keep things under control in neighborhood play. That's one of many good reasons the parent should follow her inclination to call the teacher. After their get-together, the parent might share with Kyle whatever she's learned. Fortunately, he is curious and cooperative, so it shouldn't be too difficult to explain the adults' genuine wish for him to have fun as well as their concerns about safety. Both parents should make it clear to him that contact sports and even some roughhousing can be fine, as long as certain safety rules are followed - for example, stay away from hard surfaces and pointy objects, and remove heavy shoes. Let Kyle know that you and certain other neighborhood parents are ready and willing to supervise games and free play that might cause someone to get hurt. Remember, though, that while such calm vigilance is always wise, Kyle's behavior is not out of the ordinary, and he is growing up just fine.