The Genius Way to Keep Roughhousing from Getting Out of Hand, According to a Parenting Expert

You know the drill: Kid A jump tackles Kid B. Kid B whoops with excitement and starts playfully tickling Kid A’s belly. Kid A returns the gesture, but adds a healthy of dose of pillow-fighting. Kid B tears away the pillow, sits on Kid’s A chest, and begins administering punches to the eyeball. Kid A wails in pain. Kid B wails in frustration. Everybody must be torn apart and sent to different corners to cool down.

In the words of Ron Burgundy, that escalated quickly.

This might prompt you to ban roughhousing entirely. But not fast, says Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and the author of The Whole Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline, on a recent episode of the podcast What’s One More?

Instead, she thinks you just need to give your kids boundaries—or better yet, help them make the boundaries themselves.

“I think a big mistake a lot of us make is that we’re waiting too long to set the boundaries,” Bryson says. For instance, think about the times you’ve had to interrupt your kids mid-play to say something like “No pulling people’s shirts,” or “No leaving the part of the park where I can see you.” Wouldn’t it have been easier just to set those limits to begin with?

Indeed, Bryson advocates for establishing ground rules early, and with your kids’ buy-in. “Set the guys down and say, ‘let’s set some rules together. What do you think should be the rules about making sure everybody’s body is safe while we’re playing rough and tumble?’ You can say ‘Faces are off limits. You cannot do anything to people’s faces. And if that happens, we’re going to have to stop the play.’”

She also suggests allowing one child to be the referee, and giving him or her authority to set the rules and call time if others aren’t abiding by them. “They love that power and control,” says Bryson, since it gives them a chance to set boundaries within the framework of roughhousing and play. “Put them in charge.” 

They get autonomy. You get a punch-free play session. Win-win.