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.

Boys Being Boys—and Why That’s Okay

Q:I have three boys: 3, 7 and 10 years old. The oldest loves to wrestle and play with his siblings, but he’s also much more aggressive than they are—but not to the point of hurting them. For example, he has smothered them with pillows, put a headlock on them, etc. Those actions sometimes leads to crying. I’ve been disciplining the oldest one when that happens. However, I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. And will it escalate into serious harming?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: A long time ago in America, most parents recognized that boys were, well, boisterous and loud and aggressive, as well as kind and generous and courageous. We’ve forgotten that wrestling, mock-fighting and other rough-and-tumble “games” are part and parcel with the very boyness of most young males (and some older ones, for that matter!).

With our two oldest children as girls, I was a bit unprepared for the fighting—not mean or vindictive, but for fun—that our two younger boys engaged in on a daily basis. But then I remembered their gender and heaved a sigh of relief. They were, after all, just being boys, giving into the rougher nature that God has given the male species.

So today, we have our fair share of incidents where the rough play of pretend choking, smothering, and other wrestling triggers a crying response from the younger sibling. And we gently guide our boys to learn how to play fight in a way that’s fun for both of them (much like we guided our two girls to learn how to get along when things got out of hand).

What’s important to remember is that while your oldest has some responsibility to set the tone of the fighting—not too hard or aggressive, because of his bigger body—the tears from the younger two are not your son’s fault. You describe him as holding back and not allowing himself to be too rough with them to the point that he actually hurts his younger brothers. That shows you right there that he cares for his younger siblings enough to temper his own actions in order to keep them from harm. Because he’s already shown this tendency, there’s no evidence things will escalate into serious harm territory (of course, there’s always the unforeseen accident, but that can happen anytime!).

However, your younger two have gotten off scot-free in these interactions. They were full participants in the game until suddenly it wasn’t fun for them anymore—let’s face it, it’s really not his fault if his younger sibs participate in a game of wrestling only to cry foul when it doesn’t go their way). Tears do not always mean someone’s to blame, so please keep that in mind when comforting the crying kid.

For your oldest son, ask him to walk away when his brothers start crying, that the game needs to end at that moment. Not as a punishment but as a way for him to not get frustrated with his younger brothers.

Overall, Remember, the younger two cry because that’s the weapon most younger sibs employ when they are not getting their way or losing the game or being shown they are the youngest and the oldest is stronger–really typical boy stuff here.