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Rough and Cuddly

By: Dave Pettigrew





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I think every dad loves to toss their kids up in the air. We toss them first thing when we get home, we toss them at the park, at the pool – everywhere. And every kid enjoys the sense of flying! To a point.

Every dad loves to wrestle with their kid or play chase or hide and seek. Every kid enjoys the greater level of physical touch that moms just don’t provide. To a point.

For every child there is a point at which the fun turns to discomfort or fear. Maybe they went too high or got their face too wet, or arched their back too much. Maybe you really did scare them too much when you chased them or surprised them around the corner. Whatever it is, you need to stop the game immediately and switch modes from rough to cuddly. Their reaction might surprise you – they may not want to be comforted by you because they associate you with the rough and not the cuddly. This should be a major concern to you as a dad. You don’t want to abdicate your role as comforter. So what went wrong?

Basically you did not “read your audience”. In those rough and challenging situations where you are helping your child explore boundaries and use their muscles (when you are wrestling with them, tossing them in the air, helping them walk along the top of a railing, jump off a ledge into your arms….) you have to be totally aware of their perception of danger versus enjoyment. This is not about you and your enjoyment seeing your child accomplish this amazing thing. This is about developing their self-confidence along with their trust in you and your judgement…..and then developing their own judgement. You want them to succeed more in these two aspects of the activity than in the activity itself.

And you want to stop the activity at the correct time. Before it escalates to the point they become frightened or hurt. Certainly before the time they want to get away from you and run to mom. If that happens then you know you went too far. Learn from that and get better at reading your child. Ideally you want them to be happy going into the activity, happy in the activity and happy (though a bit disappointed) to be ending the activity.

Oh, and here is a little aside on ending activities……don’t end them because you are bored. Hang in there and get engaged. Invest just a little more time in your child, and you will enjoy it more and more. Tell your child why you have to end the activity, give them fair warning and one final swing or slide or climb. But if you say one, don’t allow two or three. Make a reasonable, adult call on departure time and number of final swings etc and then stick to that. Just explain that you are sorry but we have to go. Just speak calmly and rationally – “daddy said we have to go, and you had one last swing and so now we have to go”. (don’t yell from the other side of the playground equipment “get over here, what did I say?”) Pick them up and calmly explain that it is time to go, even while they are struggling to get away. Don’t express frustration – take the high road here and calmly and rationally explain the same thing about why you have to leave. And then bridge that into a talk about either how fun the activity was or what you are going to have for dinner or something.

At first there will be complaints, maybe tears, maybe screaming. But you made a decision that was fair and reasonable (it was, wasn’t it?) and you need to establish that daddy’s decisions are fair and reasonable and neither party should ever express frustration and anger, especially in public. Here are some phrases that are really successful as you are carrying away a reluctant child:
“Ok, let me tell you a story…..”
“Do you remember when we…..”
“Did you see that (whatever) at the park?”
“So, when we get home, we need to…..”
These are a total distraction from the real issue at hand (stopping the activity) and without mentioning any misbehaviour. The best time to mention any misbehaviour is about ten minutes later when you can calmly refer to it and give instruction and encouragement on how the child should have behaved.

Back to the rough and cuddly. Starting with the newborn and infant, practice being cuddly. Try to calm them, try to rock them to sleep. Use your soothing voice. Do only a few tosses (little ones, totally supported) and follow that with some cuddles. Do only a couple of chases and then say it is time for a few hugs, reassuring them that it is all a game and daddy is not really a scary bear.

As they grow to be an exploring toddler, you need to prejudge their ability to safely climb those rocks or balance on that tree trunk. Imagine yourself a gymnastics spotter – you want to build confidence while providing safety. At this stage, all the rough stuff won’t be followed by as many hugs and cuddles but there will be some – and they will be special. What your child will enjoy is hearing you retell the stories to mom or other people….about how Jimmy or Mary climbed to the very top of the slide and then went down all by themselves!

The next few stages will see the child starting to internalize the safety judgement you had taught them. By the time they are teenagers and applying for their licence, they are relying almost totally on their own judgement. You have heard horror stories of kids who had bad judgement – were they never taught judgement?

What you are teaching your child is how to be rough and tumble, how to challenge themselves, overcome fears, take risks, succeed and fail. You are teaching them that you are there through it all – encouraging, challenging, comforting. You are teaching them self-confidence and sound judgement. It all started with the rough and cuddly bond you established early on and developed into the encouraging and supportive (win or lose, succeed or fail) relationship that will be the foundation of their self confidence in life.

So…..homework……look at your current rough/cuddly balance and determine if your behaviour is developing the relationship with your child as you would like. If your child does not want to be tossed in the air or balance on a tree stump then back off and find something they do enjoy. If you have to really hold on to them in your rough play because they really want to get away from you, stop it. Don’t force this part of your relationship. They obviously don’t like it so why are you doing it? For your own enjoyment? If your child is trying to escape your attempts to challenge them then back off. Let their challenges come more naturally. Do something they enjoy and that you can enjoy together. And if your child does not really want to play with you or sit on your lap for a story? Well, we need to cover that in another blog but here is a hint. Sit down on the floor and grab a child’s book and start reading it out loud with enjoyment and interest. Let’s see who comes to sit on your lap!

For more blogs by Dave check out