Walking the Fine Line With Play-Fighting Boys

Q: We have four year old and three year old boys. They wrestle, fight, hit each other, push each other, etc., half of the time happily and the other half angrily. We know this is very normal behavior. But where do you draw the line? 

Our oldest is currently on the chart system (see the Discipline tab on this site for a description of how Charts work) for disobedience and tantrums. If he hits, kicks, threatens us, calls us names or throws things at anyone, he goes straight to his room. Also, if he hits anyone with an object he goes straight to his room. 

But with the boys tussling, we’re not sure how much to interfere with their hitting and being mean to each other. It’s very equal, one is not worse than the other. Our friends and family all smile and say things like, “They’re typical siblings,” and “They’re just being boys.” We want them to be boys, not girls, but how much is too much?

A: Ah, boys! So energic! So fighting with each other 24/7! At least, that’s been much of my experience, especially when my two boys were preschoolers (they are close in age as well, now 9 and 11). On the one hand, you want to encourage wrestling and play fighting because they do love to do it. But on the other hand, you don’t want it to devolve into something nasty and hurt their relationship with each other.

The line between “everyone’s having fun” to “he hurt me” is razor thin. So how do we guide our boys to have fun but not cross that line? Here are some things that worked for us.

Banish the name calling. We absolutely forbid any derogatory names at all—no stupid, dummy, moron, etc. When we hear one child call another one such a name, we immediately call him or her on it and put a stop to it. Now, this doesn’t eliminate the name calling entirely, but it does keep it to a minimum and lets all the kids know it’s unacceptable.

Separate when necessary. Sometimes, the boys will want to play together more than they should because too much togetherness can trigger more rough play. But at 3 and 4, your boys aren’t able to voluntarily take themselves out of the playtime when things start to head down that pathway. So enforce time apart a couple of times a day (like for half an hour in the morning, and again in the afternoon). This will help calm things down.

Remind them how brothers treat each other. We often say, “Brothers love each other,” “Brothers treat each other with kindness,” “Brothers aren’t mean to each other” to our boys. We also talk one-on-one on occasion when we see one being meaner than the other on how to make allowances for differences, how to adjust their own expectations, and how they wouldn’t like someone to treat them the same way (Golden Rule).

Give them separate activities when possible. It’s tempting to always lump the boys together for activities at this age, but occasionally having one do something the other isn’t can help their playtime. Don’t insist that both go to the same parties or playdates.

Above all, give them space and time to be noisy, loud and boisterous in their play with each other. All too often, we shush and hush and constrict our kids when it’s not necessary. So yes, let them be boys but also guide them to be kind to each other.

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