The Art of Roughhousing

The Art of Roughhousing

By Bill Stork, DVM

It makes you wonder what happened in the back seat of the SUV on the way to the clinic.

Matt and Brooke White are the parents who flip the script so that us codgers can say, “You know what’s right with kids these days.”

In a recent article on the front page of The Wisconsin State Journal, authors cite an enormous body of research that echoes what common sense has known for millennia: playing is really good for kids. Experts from the Harvard School of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a group of researchers with multi-syllabic and hyphenated last names who are interviewed on NPR all feel that every conceivable real-life skill can be learned in the process of child-driven free play.

On playgrounds, in back yards and treehouses with their neighbors, friends, and their parents, kids learn language, connection, conflict resolution, resilience, confidence, empathy, and imagination. In The Art of Roughhousing, co-author Dr. Anthony DeBenedet cites the three modern impediments to physical play: screen time, an obsession with safety, and hyper academics (which I proudly could not even spell).

”Parents are more worried about a skinned knee or bruised feelings than life’s real dangers of apathy and stifled creativity,” says Dr. DeBenedet.

Three-year-old Gabe White helped ensure his oldest brother would not suffer such a fate.

When there’s a GMC Traverse with license plate HATRIX sitting on the curb, first shift at Lakers Athletic Club is no longer a coffee clutch with treadmills. Matt White and several of his brothers played hockey for twenty years, until he looked up to notice he and his wife were raising three boys. While I’m grunting out a rep with a pair of sixty-five pound dumbbells, you’ll find him under a two-hundred-fifty-pound bar doing one-legged squats on a wobble ball with surgical precision and control. As he grew up in Appleton, I’m imagining him as a projectile missile with pads and a stick flying around the rinks of the Fox Valley.

During a water break he wiped the sweat from his face, while I caught my breath from racking the dumbbells.

“You’re a vet, right?”

I’d tried, “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night,” on a handful of Millennials, which always got me an awkward chuckle.

“You bet,” I assured him. He and his wife had adopted an eight-week-old Goldendoodle, and were in need of vet care and guidance. I gave him an abbreviated guys-in-the-gym version of our pitch, and encouraged him to give us a call.

Brooke is fresh-faced, doe-eyed, and every bit as fit as her husband. With right hand through the leash handle, and toddler on her left hip, she reached for the door. Reggie the puppy sauntered through with the urgency of a Sunday morning, ahead of the rest of the White crew.

Like herding cats through a flock of sheep, Brooke made her way to the counter and greeted Claire with a smile and expression that said, “Just another day in the life…”

We like to take at least forty minutes with first puppy visits to go over potty training, socialization, and proper health care. Not to mention, we really like puppy breath. Owing to the attention span of youth, Chuck Berry never wrote a song over two-minutes-thirty-seconds long. I adjust the tempo of my delivery in accordance with the energy of the kids.

Seven-year-old Griffin and five-year-old Sully were solid gold, gentle with Reggie, and attentive. Which means, they’re probably about to blow. Having covered potty training and socialization, I picked up my pace through vaccine protocols and parasite prevention.

As Brooke was asking about his fits of puppy Piranha mode, I made a patient note to the effect, “beautiful coat, excellent body condition, no bite abnormalities, hernias, both testes descended, curiously calm,” though I suspected that sometimes he’s the eye of the storm, and sometimes he is the hurricane. Using parent-friendly metaphors, I described games like puppy freeze tag (to inhibit mouthing on children), and appropriate use of timeouts with chew toys.

Little Gabe rested on Brooke’s lap like a happy cherub.

Reggie was only eight weeks old, so I figured we’d breeze through the topic of neutering with a casual mention.

Gabe decided he’d demonstrate.

Without a hint to project his intention, Gabe slid from Brooke’s lap, carefully ducked under the exam table, positioned himself squarely before his oldest brother, and delivered a thunderous soccer kick to the exact anatomic neighborhood we’d been discussing. Griffin crumpled to the floor like a wet towel, crying so hard that not a decibel of sound came out.

Brooke gave a quick glance at her second-grader writhing on the floor, and focused on the conversation.

Following mom’s lead of non-reaction, I quickly offered that she and Matt make sure they use us as a resource, “Most things don’t go exactly as you’d hope.”

As she gathered up the puppy kit and clipped Reggie’s leash, she rounded up her flock, “Come on Griffin, it’s time to go, and the floor is dirty.”

I wondered what took place in the back seat on the way over. I also realized I was once Griffin. At about the same age, near the galvanized steel monkey bars at Brush College Elementary School, I used an abhorrent racial slur toward the only Asian boy in my class. In response, he delivered an emphatic lesson in empathy. And there began my departure from the narrow-mindedness that would piggyback a cracked exhaust manifold or blown carburetor into dad’s garage. Not from the mouths of bad people, simply folks who never had an opportunity to know better.

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