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The Kids Are Alright

Matt Labash, rough-and-tumble dad

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By MATT LABASH
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As a child-rearer, I’ve always prided myself on my carefree attitude and libertine ways. No “helicopter parenting” for this guy, no childproofing my children’s childhoods. If the kids set themselves on fire with their Zippos, not a problem—they can just douse the flames with their beers. Likewise, I fancy myself the family’s Director of Funtivities, as my nephews who are forced to call me “Funcle Matt” will attest.

Jumping Image

Hal Mayforth

This summer, however, I’ve sensed a chilly disinterest with my sons, Luke, 11, and Dean, 8. Maybe it’s just them getting older, but lately they’ve eschewed our living-room wrestling bouts and rounds of trampoline murderball, opting instead for the more cerebral rewards of Wii’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl or SpongeBob television marathons. This panics me, as the clock ticks away. In a short while, my roughhousing window of opportunity will close, and they’ll move toward traditional adolescent pursuits like checking out girls, huffing gas, and despising their old man.

Fortunately, professional help has arrived to recapture the bonding magic in the form of a new book, The Art of Roughhousing, cowritten by an M.D. and Ph.D. Not only does the book extol the salutary benefits of horseplay—everything from activating the amygdalae to stimulating neuron growth—but it serves as an instructional manual complete with illustrations for the modern, wussified parent who has lost all memory of what it’s like to let their children do anything more dangerous than toasting their own Pop-Tarts.

When I show my 11-year-old nephew Zack illustrations of games like Human Cannonball (launching your child airborne with your feet) or Raucous Pillow Fight, he looks gobsmacked. “You mean a book has to actually teach parents how to roughhouse with their kids?” Yes, I nod, telling him the authors even hold roughhousing play seminars with parents and their children. “Wow, Funcle Matt, just wow,” says Zack, feeling the sagging weight of civilization’s collapse.

While Zack wants nothing to do with the book, my own children aren’t given a choice, wincing as they do whenever they’re conscripted to serve as journalism fodder. And so we launch into a day of prescribed roughhousing. Mindful of the authors’ warnings to provide “emotional first aid” to the children and to “pay attention to your own feelings too. Are you nervous about getting hurt?” I announce to the kids, “Let’s get ready to rumble, roughhousers!”

“We’re not ‘roughhousers,’ ” says Luke, having recently discovered sarcastic air quotes. “We’re just doing this for your story.” Whatever. We wrestle and somersault, tumble and vault. We play Booby Trap and Bucking Bronco and Sumo Dead Lift, with Luke and Dean concluding most games by rolling around on the floor like tiger cubs, pulling each other’s shirts over their heads and clocking each other like hockey goons (that last part not being in the book—they just do this for extra credit). We play Zany Jazz Riff, inspired by Sun Ra, the free jazz pioneer, as we tear through the house banging pots with wooden spoons. “How does this make you feel?” I ask over the clatter. “Like a retard!” says Dean, the politically incorrect one.

The boys become more invested, however, as the tasks grow increasingly physical, and even mildly dangerous. For Jousting, we balance ourselves on a board, then try knocking each other off with baseball bats. “Ow!” exclaims Dean. “You hit me in the crackers!” My mistake—next time, we should use pool noodles, as per the instructions. We ride a mattress down the stairs, nearly crashing through the wall at the bottom. “This is fun,” says Luke. “We haven’t done this in a while.” “We’ve never done this,” I say, confused. “Me and Dean have,” he confesses.

By the time we make it to the “Extreme Roughhousing” chapter, I feel the children are ready to play Geronimo, an exercise in which they will jump off a roof or deck not exceeding a height of 10 feet. The kids aren’t excited. “Why would we do that?” says Luke, intuitively sensing that the remedy for 30 years of overprotective parenting philosophies is as absurd as what it seeks to correct. “What if we break our ankles?” protests Dean—a fair question. I can’t, in good conscience, ask the kids to sustain crippling injuries for a Casual. Maybe for a multipage feature, but not this way.

So together, we jump off the roof of the car instead. Afterwards, I ask the kids what they feel. A sense of accomplishment? Their boundaries expanded? “Actually, kinda stupid,” says Luke. “Doesn’t seem like roughhousing—it’s just a stunt.” Feeling pity for me, he adds, “We can still jump off the roof if you want.” “Nahhh,” I say. “Let’s go inside. SpongeBob starts in five minutes.”


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