10/20/2012 06:37 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2012

Tomboy Mom Wrestles With Roughhousing

I am a mom who likes to wrestle, throw balls, and guest star as a dragon overlord in my children's games. Yet lately, as my son transitions from toddlerhood to boyhood, I've grown self-conscious about encouraging certain kinds of rough-and-tumble play. My daughter's physical play style is raucous and loud, but less bellicose than what I've come to think of as "boy play," in which a stick can become a weapon at any moment. When play takes the form of a battle, I get squeamish.

It starts with three, three-year old ninjas on a play-date in the park gleefully punching the space around each others' heads. Though my son and his two buddies play together often and well, I got nervous and decided to insert myself into the game in order to preempt injury. Eventually, I lay supine in the dust, groaning, as the three ninjas launched themselves onto my abdomen. "Ooof," I exhaled. Then, the youngest of them, my son, karate-chopped me in the eye, and I snapped: "Hey, that's enough! You do not hit your mother. You do not hit, period! "

I did NOT feel great about this ninja smack-down. I had to ask myself: is it poor modeling to teach boys to attack women, even in the context of a game? Should parents, in particular, mothers, model pacifism and exude calming energy?

It turns out roughhousing is socially, cognitively, and physically essential for children. It incorporates fantasy and physicality, and as play, it helps children acquire cognitive flexibility. Children solve problems in an unpredictable context through roughhousing.

Perhaps the most important thing children get from roughhousing is the social dexterity it takes to trust themselves and others in emotionally charged situations. Dr. Anthony DeBenedet writes in The Art of Roughhousing:

When we roughhouse with our kids, we model how someone bigger and stronger holds back. We teach them self-control, fairness and empathy... The pleasure of playing helps animals (and people) give up the power of force and rely instead on the power of friendship.

Roughhousing does not build brutes; it builds relationships.

It occurs to me that a mom who teaches her son to roughhouse shows him how to respect women outside the bounds of chivalry; to view girls as viable buddies instead of creatures they have to protect. Gender-blind roughhousing might create feminists of both sexes.

But my intervention into my son's game was not really playful, it was overprotective. So I'm going to take the advice of my husband and RELAX ALREADY. Experience is the only way my son will learn the difference between a pretend hit and a hit that hurts. When my son is at the park with his buddies chest-bumping and disemboweling imaginary villains, I am going to stand back and trust him to negotiate the rules of his own game. At home, I will ask my husband to tie on the apron every once in a while so I can chopstick sword-fight with my kids.

The price of wisdom has always been the occasional split lip or broken window.