It’s inevitable. Whenever someone asks for my first piece of advice about raising their children, boys or girls, my answer is the same.
And wrestle a lot. There are five main reasons why I recommend wrestling with your children. But first, note this.
When you wrestle with your child, you should loose. Give them enough resistance to make them work for it, even break out in a sweat. And then you loose. You push back up, almost take the upper hand, and then admit defeat. You nearly escape from their clutches, ready to turn the table on them, and then you get clobbered.
Another way of saying this: if your ego needs you to win, don’t wrestle. And I am not saying this maliciously. Parenting is a big bloody fight against our ego anyway and if you can’t bring yourself to play by the rules, find another game. There are plenty to go around. No shame in limitations. We all do what we can.
Wrestling is a game. And if you do it well, the words from your child will always reflect the fact that you suck at wrestling, that you’re weaker than they are, and they will always beat you. If they say these things often and with confidence you have done a tremendous job. And you will have given a phenomenal gift.
There are five main reasons to wrestle.
- Wrestling builds trust. They know that they can play with you, which they want more than just about anything. You are meeting them at their level and that they receive as a tremendous gift. The physical interaction, where you wrestle and keep everybody safe let’s them know how much you care for them, that no matter what they throw at you, you have got them. The balancing act that both of you engage in is in some sense a deep and natural form of “trust-falls.” But unlike the trust falls you may have experienced at a work retreat, wrestling in fact builds trust. Your balancing bodies are telling your brains that you can trust each other.
- Wrestling deepens your connection. The entire exchange between you and your kid, right where it matters. The deep listening that you engage in when you wrestle, the physical, kinesthetic kind of listening that is crucial for wrestling to go well, that sends the powerful signal to your child that they live inside of you. It makes them feel deeply felt. In a very inevitable way.
- Wrestling deepens their sense of empathy. Kids who wrestle with other kids or with you have to feel you very deeply. They develop their ability to feel you over time and will learn what their force can do. Since this is a real game, and they are wont to continue the game—and because they really do love you—they will want to make sure they are not accidentally hurting you. So they have to have their antennas out for you as much as you do for them. I happen to believe that children are born with a deep sense of empathy. But I also believe that if they never get to exercise their feeling antennas, they can loose that skill. Wrestling keeps their ability to feel others alive, and embodies it.
- Wrestling develops their self confidence. Children deal on a daily basis with failure, inability, inadequacy in a grown up world. Just imagine your day, knowing that everything you do is subject to comment, improvement, and criticism. No matter how gently and lovingly you approach raising your children, moving them along to new and better skills is a large part of what you do. When you wrestle—and they get to beat you—they get to experience the delight of winning, of being better, stronger. It’s a game and in a real sense they know that. But they also get to play at mastery. And that provides lessons they are going to need for the rest of their lives.
- Wrestling integrates their brain and makes them smarter. The body and the mind are fully integrated. You nor I can find a place where the mind stops and the body begins. Nor can anyone else. And so, when you wrestle and invite them into full contact engagement that incorporates their entire body and all of those body proprioceptors, their whole brain lights up. There is not a part of the brain that is not engaged in wrestling. More importantly, all parts of the brain are working in connection. And the development of brain connections is one of the main tasks of growing up. Kids who wrestle will have a well developed pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that talks to the limbic system and helps improve responses to emotional stimuli. It’s what we want for our children, that they can talk to themselves internally, and reassure themselves that even when things don’t feel good, they will get better—you’re hungry, and you can really live for 30 more minutes and not die. It’s where good decision making happens. And we like that part of the brain strong. To make it strong, wrestle.
Over the last few years, I have wrestled with many children in our community. We have had organized playdates and just get together with friends. And at some point or another more than a few of the kids will charge towards me and knock me over, take me down and pummel with their body weight, all the while howling and shrieking with delight. Here is one thing I have learned.
Wrestling is a skill
Wrestling is a skill. And the more kids wrestle the better they get. And that matters to you, because a skilled wrestler can come at you full force and still not hurt you. And when I say hurt you, I am talking about those physical issues such a black eyes, bloody noses, and deep scratches in the neck or other body parts. If you have wrestled with kids, you have had injuries. And sometimes kids can be outright scary, because they are a force and they’ll let you feel it.
The better the are at wrestling, the better they are at using all of their force, without hurting you. It’s still a game, and when kids can play, and you are game, they will want the game to continue. That won’t happen when they hurt you. And in general, they don’t really want to hurt you, no matter what they make you believe sometimes.
I can now tell in a few seconds who is used to wrestling and who doesn’t get enough chances to duke it out with their parents or other care providers. Those who wrestle a lot are safe. Those who don’t and now have a chance—which they will take in a heartbeat—can be dangerous. If wrestling is new to your kids, you may want to ease into it, and make sure that they realize what hurts and what can cause serious wounds. They’ll get it soon enough. And then you can go all out.
So much more I could say. But from here on out, I suggest you just go for it. Get pummeled. Taste the bitterness of defeat at the hands of your children. Deal with the humiliation of being pinned to the floor or the bed.
And watch them light up.