in: Fatherhood, People, Podcast

• Last updated: September 27, 2021

Art of Manliness Podcast #66: The Art of Roughhousing With Dr. Anthony DeBenedet


I’m a big fan of roughhousing with my kids, and we’ve covered the importance of this father/child tradition in a previous article and video. In those pieces, I cited real research that shows something dads already know intuitively — that there are a lot of benefits to wrastlin’ with your rugrats. Today I talk to the co-creator of the source book on that research: Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet. DeBenedet, along with Lawrence J. Cohen, are the authors of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. In this podcast I talk to Dr. DeBenedet about why roughhousing is so good for your kids.

Show Highlights:

  • Why roughhousing has a PR problem
  • How roughhousing makes your kids smarter and more ethical
  • How roughhousing can help prevent your daughter from suffering Queen Bee Syndrome
  • How soon can you start roughhousing with your progeny? (It’s sooner than you think)
  • And much more!

Book cover, the art of roughhousing by Anthony Debenedet and Lawrence Cohen.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, I’m a dad, I know a lot of you who are listening are dads or some of you have the goal of being a father one day, so this podcast is for you guys. One of my favorite things to do as a dad is roughhousing with my son, Gus, he is 3 years old. We’ve been roughhousing since he was about a year. It’s just so much fun, you know, just wrestling with him on the ground, throwing him up in the air, doing body slams on the bed, doing baby-suplex. I mean Gus just get to kick out of it. It’s always fun when I’m like engrossed in work and Gus comes and pulls on my arm and say he wants to wrestle with dad and that’s how he says it. Anyways, I’ve a lot of fun, it’s just a lot of great memories, but there is actually some benefits like going along with roughhousing besides just doing some exercise and having fun with dad. Our guest today actually wrote a book on the topic of roughhousing and the benefits of roughhousing. His name is Dr. Anthony DeBenedet. He is a board certified physician and in the book that he coauthored is The Art of Roughhousing. And today we’re going to talk about the research that has come out about benefits of roughhousing and basically how it makes your kid awesome. It helps your kid become smarter, more ethical, more moral, you name it, and it strengthened the father-child bond. So, if you’re a dad you’ll really enjoy this podcast so stay tuned.

Anthony DeBenedet, welcome to the show.

Anthony: Oh, it’s great to be here Brett, thanks for having me. I’m such a fan of The Art Of Manliness.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much, I appreciate that. Alright, so your book is the art of roughhousing, what inspired you to write a book about roughhousing? Because it seems one of those things that everyone just––I think it’s kind of… yeah, it’s a childhood rite of passage, everyone does it, why did you feel compelled to write a book about it?

Anthony: Right, I was–– what got me interested in roughhousing was really two things, one basically, it was the way that I found to connect with my daughter when she was 2 or 3. I was kind of on this road, disconnection and a kind of dad-failure trajectory, and playing rough-and-tumble play in particular really kicked us back into a better place and then also just really the science behind it. I was a–– I’m a working parent, so I kind of wanted to find out what would be the best thing for my book in terms of small amount of time that I would have with my kids after work and I found that, rough-and-tumble play really had a lot of great developmental benefits for kids, there was a lot of cool science behind it. That’s what got me interested in doing the book.

Brett McKay: Great. So, I want to talk about the science and research because I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by it. But before that, I mean do you think roughhousing has a PR problem, because we’ve written about roughhousing on the site and…

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: You know we’ve done videos and every time we do someone’s like oh, yeah, everyone says roughhousing is it’s–– you know people are trying to outlaw roughhousing. Why do you think there is that perception that roughhousing has been banned or look down upon?

Anthony: I think it goes down to really one big thing and that’s kind of our obsession with safety in our culture. I don’t want to be too much soapbox, but I think there has been a lot of great thing regarding child safety in terms of car seats, I mean those are great and bike helmets are great, but it seems like we’ve almost gone too far and we kind of become more afraid of bruised knee or hurt feeling that kind of life’s in real danger, so I think that when people start thinking about roughhousing, they think about oh, that’s going to be dangerous. And actually that’s not really what the research shows from a physical injury standpoint, we don’t see a lot of injuries from healthy roughhousing and it actually is very safe if you have kind of basic knowledge or basic principles that are guiding you during the play time.

Brett McKay: Interesting. Yeah, it was funny, you know we did a post about roughhousing and I––my son was like 18 months old at the time and I just post a little iPhone video with me roughhousing, you know, nothing like–– I wasn’t like being very gentle… I mean yeah, he was having fun, he was laughing, and someone on Facebook said they’re going to report me to Facebook that I was abusing my child and I was like why, what…

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And it’s funny that whole you know the…

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: There is sort of––it seems there is sort of reaction to the overreaction with safety because you know recently we had this article on the Atlantic Monthly about are we cuddling our kids too much or something wrong with helicopter parenting.

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: And there is all those research saying that yeah, we’re actually hurting our kids by trying to protect them too much.

Anthony: Right, that’s exactly right, roughhousing fits kind of writing to that paradigm and in a lot of ways it’s kind of the roots of the paradigm and then you know we think that we can’t be playful physically with kids, but that’s wrong. I mean that’s not wrong as parents that we should be you know providing instruction, being disciplinarian, and all that kind of stuff and really you know the essence of their world in their playful world. I mean that is the language and when we’re wearing our sleeves, get down and dress or it’s all over, and giggle with them and do those kinds of activity, horse play kind of things that’s, really where we’re starting to really connect with them.

Brett McKay: Well.

Anthony: Picking their language.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so let’s get into the research, because this is the thing that fascinated me the most about your book. I mean there is actually science that says yeah you should roughhouse, you know you should give your baby a baby-suplex, basically…


Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So, what does the science say about roughhousing?

Anthony: Yeah, the science is what grabbed me too as kind of a trade scientists, you know, it really is––there is three thing that I tell folks that three big benefits that kids get when mom or dad actually roughhouse with them and that three things are intelligence, creativity, and connection, those three things. Intelligence is it really fascinates me because you know there is a lot of way to –– first of all there is a lot of way to think about intelligence but you know from not only IQ standpoint, I think about brain development in kids the biggest years of brain development are ages essentially from age one through eight essentially. That’s why a lot of neuro connections are happening. And roughhousing causes something called simultaneous activation of the brain and that’s really is the essence of brain development. That means that multiple parts of a child’s brain are being stimulated all at once. So, their cortex is firing, their mental is firing, their cerebellum, all main parts of the brain are firing and that is what’s causing kind of neuro connections to develop, naturally be best in the brain development. The only knowledge I can give you in the adult world that you are running a marathon and you’re at the same time beating heart and reading a book, all at the same time, that’s kind of analogy, I mean in adult world, but that’s really what roughhousing is doing for kids’ brain. And that’s ––yeah, we just talk about book smarts or kind of fear or memory ––you know your ability to memorize basically you know the foundation when people say book smarts, that’s what the feeling, it’s creating the simultaneous activation but even more so than that growing some of the benefits. Actually, real quick on intelligence–– because my favorite is emotional intelligence, and roughhousing does a great job of imparting emotional intelligence and emotional intelligent concepts in children and the basic gist of that is that emotional intelligence comes under two things–– one is understanding your own emotion and then the second thing is kind of a little bit more sci-fi, that’s being able to tend to the emotions of others without really talking to them. And roughhousing does a great job of teaching kids how to do that. Basically when you’ve roughhousing play period, you’ve lots of time where kids start feeling really, really high energy, really, really quick and then there is a wind down period where they start to understand what it feels like to have a low energy, low emotion and that basically, that arc of winding up and winding down is basically the essence of understanding your own emotions and trying to getting that kind of barometer dimmer sketch instilled in the kids at an early age is really the essence of emotional intelligence. The second piece, you know understanding other or being able to sense other people’s emotion is basically is roughhousing is great for kids because there is a lot of nonverbal body language kind of stuff as eye contact, it’s body language and so as you begin sense the emotions of dad or mom, then you kind of transcend that ability out into the real world and being able to sense other people’s emotions, that is two big benefits, creativity. Creativity is pretty easy, roughhousing in whiles and kind of horse plays is all about creative problems. So you know kids love shark and glaciers, and volcanoes and things that explode. And so as you’re kind of on the ground with them and throwing pillows or jumping on cushion or mattress to mattress, you can inject creative problems in this play time, like you know how do we get away from the sharks they’re going to attack our island, what do we do? And kids will come up with amazing creative imaginative solutions and that kind of starts the wheels turning in terms of this and the research shows this in terms of developing divergent thinkers and that’s what we want kids to be and you wanted to be and everybody wanted to be divergent thinkers and that’s you know the idea that there is more than one solution to a problem. That’s really the essence of creativity, it’s not so much like to be quite music or musical instrument or can you create a painting. It’s really can he solve the problem in different ways. And then the final one is connection. It’s good to be really excited and that’s ––I think that you know when you ask parents, you know what do you really wants from your kids, well, everybody says they want to be happy. And then the second thing, I think is that we want some connections with them, so that when they get older, they might ask us for surprises in some contexts or they might want us to be a part of their life in some way. I think building that connections through roughhousing at a young age is really––going back to the brain and actually the roughhousing released that which is the cuddle chemical which has been in the news, and the media quite a bit over the past 5 to 10 years, a lot of research being done. Oxytocin is basically the biological basis of empathy and essentially tells somebody that we’re really there with them, it’s released with like a genuine hug or handshake or a fist pump but it’s also relish roughhousing. So, kids basically and adults too kind of develop that biological connection early and that kind of place. Sorry, that was a long answer.

Brett McKay: No, no, it’s––I love it because it’s a fascinating stuff, so intelligence, creativity and connection.

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I can say from my own experience with my son, I’ve definitively seen that especially the emotional part. Because you know sometimes you know when you roughhouse there is some shots below the belt or you know you got a knee in the nose and like it hurts like aaah… and it’s interesting to see my son come up to me in really–– you know when he was like one- and-a- half, two and say oh, daddy hurt me, daddy you’re okay.

Anthony: Right, he’ll attend to that.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Anthony: He’ll attend to that, right.

Brett McKay: And this…

Anthony: And that’s because a lot of those chemicals are ––yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and he says I’m sorry…

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And he says I’m sorry and it’s nothing too he’s like he has learned sort of like boundaries right, like he doesn’t–– he knows like what’s…

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: You know he can’t go too far with roughhousing because then it’ll become sort of malicious.

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: You know, he’s learned to restraint himself a bit when we rough house, he doesn’t like you know stomp on my face basically…

Anthony: Exactly.

Brett McKay: He knows that’s wrong.

Anthony: That’s so funny, right, exactly.

Brett McKay: Someday that’ll payoff later in the future when he is an adult, you know and he’d be ethical. Okay, you mentioned in the beginning that the reason you got interested in roughhousing is because you’ve a daughter, and I thought we typically associated roughhousing like something boys do with dads, but you make an argument that girl should roughhouse too, are there’re any unique benefits…

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: That the research has found that you know if dads roughhouse with their daughters that’ll you know help them in someway that’s different from boys.

Anthony: Yeah, they definitely are. So real quick on the boys education and kind of–– so roughhousing is really, and I try to tell folks it’s really for everyone, so it’s for both boys and girls and moms and dads, there is no real gender barrier. I think that dads and boys may come a little bit more naturally that’s okay and just like for moms and girls, nurturing like come a little bit more naturally. And I think for boys at least roughhousing, you know boys… most important for boy. I’ve three girls so I ––you know at least from what I’ve heard and I you know as a man and I believe that the most important thing for boys to learn before they leave the house is actually there is more to physical contact, and sex, and violence and that’s you know you can get that lesson in as a parent, you’re really doing 90% of what will really be accessible skills to your son. And roughhousing is a great job of dad obviously because you’re showing that this playfulness in physical contact. For girls, the important thing I think that they can learn before they leave the house is to find their voice and that’s, you know that’s one of the most powerful things in the world is a woman’s voice and roughhousing does a great job of that a lot. In a lot of way what you’re talking about with your son is that when something doesn’t feel right or doesn’t go right or something is hurt or somebody gets hurt, there is a lot of those speaking up, there is a hold-the- action kind of time period where a girl starts to really find that voice and say what they didn’t like about the play time, or what they did like about it and even taking that a step further when they get a little bit older. So, you know after age eight and kind of preteen years and that’s so much of the improvisational roughhousing and wrestling that goes on when they’re younger, but it can become much more about physical challenges. So when you’re doing a run together or balancing out, you’re seeing how far you can balance and how long you can balance and how you can jump off sort of things and that also is all about using your voice and talking about what your abilities are. So, I think that’s a unique benefit that girls get pretty quickly. Boys are usually pretty good about kind of yelling and talking about what they want and you know that voice boys kind of come quickly, but they need to learn that physical contact and girls are a little shower to warmup, but roughhousing helps a lot in that way.

Brett McKay: I think I’ve read this in your book if I remember correctly that they done studies where they found that girls roughhouse with their fathers like tend to not be queen B, you know that whether they get to become preteens, was that you or was it Martin Summer.

Anthony: That’s me.

Brett McKay: Yeah, which I think is great.

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I mean no one wants their daughter to be the mean girl, right.

Anthony: Right, yeah, exactly. And that goes back to that I didn’t actually talk about this, but real quickly the social intelligence aspect is another kind of intelligence that roughhousing bring and that’s the idea of knowing when to be a leader or when to be a follower. I think that’s you know in our country we talked a lot about leadership and it’s equal value is followership. We all have skills that can be imparted on others and imparted on the world as a whole and that kind of let’s say leadership piece knowing when to be but it also need to know when to be followers to the benefit of the team and to the benefit of the collectives.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, in related to that ––I mean yeah, it does teach us social intelligence and I think also for me and my son, like you know I’m definitely bigger and stronger than my son.

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But you know sometimes I let him just take control and just like pound me right and just do whatever…

Anthony: That’s key.

Brett McKay: Yeah and…

Anthony: Key, yeah, totally. That’s a social intelligence.

Brett McKay: Yeah and hopefully I’m imparting that you know even though you’re strong and bigger than the other guy, you know sometimes you got to take turns and roles, right and like…

Anthony: That’s right…

Brett McKay: Yeah, fascinating. So… I mean yeah, so like roughhousing like it makes your kid awesome basically.

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: I mean.

Anthony: Yeah, I tell folks when I talk to them and discuss it, you know anybody who comes on and says that there is a magic bullet to parenting should probably turn their face and walk out but I think what I’m trying to say to folks is that this was a tool at least for me that’s helps a lot among the other tools, of course, as a parent and that you know your kid best and that it’s not you know if you hear this podcast and you’re like okay I’m going to go home and just start throwing my kid around, you know that might not be exactly what to do. It might be just getting down on the floor with them or you know just pushing on hands on each other a little bit and not necessarily rubbing it up immediately, but it’s been a good research for me and kind of my toolbox of being a dad you know to try upon it and one that’s definitely there is some science behind it for sure.

Brett McKay: Okay, so we just talked about the benefits for children, is there any research about the benefits for parents?

Anthony: Yeah, it’s interesting. The parent research is there is a lot of stuff on–– and not necessarily roughhousing proper but, of course, physical activity and it’s just–– it’s actually physical activity that involves other people. So there is some translation there and mainly what I would say to that is there is a probably a cognitive benefit to playing in this way with your kids, a cognitive in terms of kind of brain health, so not only just it help me you know simultaneous activation helps kids brain and probably helps adults brain as well, the research isn’t as strong. And then, also I think just the connection piece and I think that’s the other big benefit. You know oxytocin not only helps with connection, it actually helps counteract the stress response, so if you’re really you know you thought that your feeling your stress level as a parent is very high, which a lot of ours us including mine, roughhousing release of oxytocin actually helps counteract cortisol. That’s the other big kind of benefit in a sense.

Brett McKay: I guess so, if you had a bad day at work, play with your kids.

Anthony: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Yeah, roughhousing is the answer to everything. I’m joking. It seems like that, it’s great. So, how soon can you start roughhousing with your–– I mean is there like a guidelines or just sort of like when you think your kid is ready for it or your time I mean…

Anthony: Right.

Brett McKay: Definitely you don’t want to start roughhousing as soon as they’re out of the womb, that wouldn’t be good…

Anthony: Yeah, that’s a good question.

Brett McKay: But you know is there any guideline when you can start kind of doing a little bit of rough-and-tumble play.

Anthony: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the best guideline is that usually over–– there are some gentle thing that you can do even at six months of age and that just involves gentle nudging, rolling them around on the carpet basically lifting them up in the air, but the key on that is really it comes on again back to the knowledge is what equals safety not prohibition. It’s basically is related to the neck development, the muscles of the neck and that’s sort of thing is pretty obvious but it’s basically once kids can hold their neck upright on their own that’s usually a good sign you can kind of start being a little more physical with them. But when their necks are not–– when they’re not able to support their necks on their own, that’s when you just want to keep a gentle nudging and rolling around the muscle. In general mostly the peak age for roughhousing is age 2 to 8. After 8 it becomes more of a physical challenge kind of stuff and less wrestling, pillow fight, you know that kind of improvisational stuff, it’s much more structure that’s all. I used to jump off the roof with my dad and learning how to land safely and those kind of stuff…

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. I mean yeah, if you do that today like the neighbors would be calling DHS, so it was dad jumping off the roof with his 3-year-old. when you’re speaking, I mean I’m sure there’s some dads out there who are listening and you know maybe roughhousing doesn’t come naturally, they don’t like–– they didn’t do when they were kid or whatever, like they’re not sure like how to go about doing it, any guidelines on getting started with roughhousing?

Anthony: Yeah, I’ll say two things–– one is fall over, you start falling over randomly, kids will love that, they’ll jump on you, you want to do anything other than just you know feigned a trip or fall and then just fall on ground in agony and kids will laugh and they’ll jump on you and begin kind of roll on and start there, the other thing that I would say is that follow the giggles. What I mean by that is that it’s the joke or the play time or the rowdiness will get old for you that’s long before, usually it’s get old for your kids or child and what that means is that just keep doing it, they’ll fall over again or you know throw them up in the air again or having climb on your back again and run around the house again, if they’re liking it then they are giggling just keep doing it even if they feels like it is getting old.

Brett McKay: And you also have in your book like examples like kind of suggestions for like roughhousing moves, right.

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so check that out.

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Some great stuff.

Anthony: Yeah, it was like… yeah, the book has a lot of activities. I think there’s over 100 activities on a lot of different kids to think about and have fun with.

Brett McKay: Yeah, my son’s favorite is baby-suplex.

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It is basically I just take him kind of throw him over my––not throw him over my shoulder, it’s basically like a wrestlemania suplex, wrestle is like he wants to wrestle and then the other one is…

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: He calls it scoop-a-bed, and we just like, it’s like when I throw him on the bed and…

Anthony: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And that’s that, I mean it’s really simple stuff…

Anthony: Yeah, we call it big the same move, we call big drop in…

Brett McKay: Big drop.

Anthony: Basically, lift kids up …. they’re lying on their back, you lift them up and then just drop them right in the bed.

Brett McKay: I love it. Well, Anthony what can people find out more about your work on roughhousing?

Anthony: Yeah, there is a website, although I’ll say that Facebook page which is also the other roughhousing update a little bit more regularly and then the website and then my twitter handle is Rowdy Dad and anybody can contact me directly through twitter.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Anthony DeBenedet, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Anthony: Oh Brett, thanks for having me and I love your work and keep it up.

Brett McKay: Thank you very much. Our guest today was Dr. Anthony DeBenedet. His book is The Art of Roughhousing and you can find that on You can find out information about his book at the

Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out at The Art of Manliness website at and if you enjoyed the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you would go on to iTunes or Stitcher or whatever you use to listen to the podcast and give us review, that’ll help and helps spread the word about the podcast. So until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly…

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