Parenting guide teaches pillow fights and other horseplay

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/ Source: The Associated Press
By Leanne Italie

It took an M.D. and a Ph.D. to come up with "The Art of Roughhousing," a new parenting guide to good old-fashioned horseplay complete with ultra-simple diagrams for a safe "raucous pillow fight" or round of "human cannonball."

Can the helicopter parents handle it? You could break an arm, put an eye out!

The writers, both dads, think that they can. They consider it crucial, in fact, to kids' self-esteem and physical development that parents unplug the family, loosen up and let fly.

"Play looks a lot different now. There's this huge kind of obsession with safety. Nobody's playing at night anymore. Technology has taken over playtime," said co-author Lawrence Cohen, a psychologist in Boston.

No dummies, publisher Quirk Books embraces the realities of parenting today with a big fat legal disclaimer in bold blue print on the book's first page that concludes: "We urge you to obey the law and the dictates of common sense at all times."

Roughhousing, after all, is "rowdy, but not dangerous," the book encourages. It also "flows with spontaneity, improvisation and joy," but — done right — requires mattresses be hauled out or couch cushions laid on the floor so kids as young as 3 can jump safely from on high.

How did parenting come to this, a manual for the most natural of urges?

"Parents usually aren't doing it exactly the right way, or the most healthy way," said the other co-author, gastroenterologist Anthony DeBenedet in Ann Arbor, Mich. "They also don't allow for that wind-down period after because, understandably, they have things to do. Get dinner done or get ready for bed."

TODAY Moms: How do you feel about your kids roughhousing?

Roughhousing, they said, need not leave kids revved up or promote violence. It can actually make kids smarter, emotionally intelligent, likable — even lovable, according to the book released May 27.

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"In other words," the two wrote, "when we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back. We teach them self-control, fairness and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn't everything."

With their guide, DeBenedet and Cohen have tapped into the "take back childhood" movement, a backlash to the heavy scheduling and academic pressure that has some in the field of child-rearing warning of an entire generation that can take tests nicely but likely won't have the freedom of mind to run the world one day.

The two are downright pied pipers, conducting workshops on how to roughhouse at community events and schools in their areas. Cohen already had a reputation from his previous book, "Playful Parenting," which is now in its 11th printing.

"There are some who come in and think it's bad territory, that my job is to tell them to stop," Cohen said. "We don't think that safety comes from not doing roughhousing but that safety comes from doing it in a safe way."

Consider twirling. "The key to twirling is to establish a solid anchor," the book instructs. Is "suspension" more your style? "You can incorporate suspension into almost any flight move; just make sure it causes delight, not panic."

Does the notion of spotting confuse? "You don't have to be a gymnastics coach to understand the basics of spotting. To spot is to keep a person free from injury by gently helping her to a safe landing or guiding her through the completion of a move."

Each activity in the guide is accompanied by a '50s-style visual aid and written in an easy-to-follow format offering the ages of kids it can benefit, the level of difficulty and the essential skills it offers.

Take the Raucous Pillow Fight. Such a thing is good for children 4 and up. Its difficulty is "easy" and it teaches "losing and winning." The best pillows for whacking are the big, fluffy kind rather than the small, hard sofa kind.

"When battling your opponent," the book cautions, "always hold the zippered part of the pillow and whack with the other end to prevent injuries like eyeball lacerations." CHECK!

Audrey Brashich, 40, has two boys, ages 4 and 2. It's not really about her physical play with the kids, but how they play with each other that worries her.

"All they do is roughhousing. They're physically incapable of not doing it," said Brashich, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. "I find it stressful, dangerous for them and the interior of my home, which is taking a beating, too."

What does she do instead? "We don't hang out at home," she said. "I would rather make up errands on rainy days. Anything is better than keeping them at home, trying to play games or do Play-Doh. Everyone is happier and safer if we get out and are busy."

Would she find a guide on how to safely roughhouse with her kids helpful?

"Hmmm. Most likely not," Brashich said.

In Costa Mesa, Calif., Alissa Circle, 31, has a 3-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son. It's their wrestling, chasing, jumping on furniture and running in the house the second she turns her back that most concerns her.

"I'd love to find ways to organize the craziness to make it fun for them, but not make me constantly feel like I'm saying 'Stop, don't do that!'"

What, specifically, are they doing? "Sometimes I feel like I run to the bathroom and when I come back they've taken all of the pillows off the playroom couch and are jumping off the couch onto them," she said.

No worries, Alissa, they might have got it right on their own.