Boys Will Be Dogs: Is Play Fighting Actually Good For Our Kids? by Mama Mzungu

BonBon Break

Boys Will Be Dogs by Mama Mzungu {Image courtesy of Lars Plougmann via Creative Commons, some rights reserved}

Image courtesy of Lars Plougmann. Some rights reserved.

A few weeks ago, I went to pick up my son Caleb at his friend’s house. As I chatted with the friend’s mother, the two boys came barreling out the door, slapping each other, kicking, bear hugging and finally falling to the ground grappling like tiny Greco-Roman wrestlers.

If there was no soundtrack, you’d be worried. But through their screaming you could hear giggles. If you looked closely, you’d see smiles. Even so, I had to fight my urge to tell Caleb to “stop hitting” or to “play nicely.” For some reason, that day I followed my friend – a woman who has a much more free-range, hands-off parenting style – and said nothing.

The whole scene tested my comfort level, but somewhere inside I also felt that this kind of fighting might just be natural and perhaps even good. And I had the nagging sensation that I had witnessed this healthy play fighting before. Then I remembered: my sister’s dogs.

She has two Sheperd mixes who live in the mountains and spend lots of time outdoors – and lots of time “play fighting.” They bare their teeth, bark fiercely, nip at each other and get so absorbed in their fighting that you have to watch that they don’t knock you over. For a non-dog owner like me, this display is always vaguely terrifying, even though my sister constantly reminds me, “Don’t worry, they are just playing. Look at their tails wagging. They are happy.”

If Caleb and his friend had tails, they would have been wagging. And I began to wonder if stopping all this play fighting might be doing our kids a disservice. Quite possibly there was some evolutionary role served and even some social learning happening through this play fighting.

So, I set out to research the matter, and I was surprised by what I found.

Mama Mzungu HeadshotABOUT MAMA MZUNGU: Mama Mzungu is an American living and working in Western Kenya, where she’s also busy raising her two boys. She blogs and writes about the ironies, pleasures and difficulties of raising her wazungu (foreign) children in a vastly different culture. You can find her at

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