Swords, Sandboxes, and Precious Memories: Transition Points

(c) 2017 John Thurman        My 2 year old pouncing on Pa.

What was your last transition point? A change at work, in your relationship, your health or you family? Life is filled with various transition points, mile markers, and life stages. Today, I am going to give you some lessons that I am learning in my most recent transition point.

On Christmas Day I surrendered my Walmart, yellow handled foam sword to my daughter’s firstborn son. This spunky four-year-old, his two-year-old brother, and their seven-year-old cousin and I regularly engage in some rough and tumble things like sword fights, pool noodle wars and other forms of tussling.

It is a reasonably predictable pattern whether they are on the phone or at the house, when they say, “Hey Pa, let’s have a sword fight.” We usually do.

My seven-year-old grandson, his father and his uncle, and I (all veterans) began doing this about four or five years ago. As the oldest grandson, he proudly taught the other two how to engage his dad, uncle and his “Pa” in these fun, healthy, life skill building, pugilistic activities.

Their mission is to take on Pa and eventually get him on the ground. Once I am down it is time to pounce on Pa, where we tussle and roll around until they “get me.”

Now I imagine some of you are already getting a little uncomfortable with this practice. Sometimes when people ask me about activities that I do with the grandkids, I tell them we go to the zoo, our Explora museum, the park, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A playrooms, have play times and engage in rough and tumble play, and tussling.

The Importance of Rough and Tumble Play for little Boys

First, the word tussle is a common word I grew up with in Middle Georgia as a child. The word usually refers to pretend to fight, scuffling, rough and tumble play. One dictionary defines tussling as a vigorous struggle which is typically brief and typically occurs to obtain or to achieve something. In my grandson’s terms, the mission is to bring Pa down to pounce on, pile on, and roll around until Pa surrenders.

This type of behavior between fathers, sons and other appropriate male family members has been practiced since pre-recorded history.

Psychology Today had a great article in their June 30, 2015, magazine titles, Do Boys Need Rough and Tumble Play, which was both affirming and informative.

The appeal of rough and tumble play is the physical challenge of testing their strength and the exciting idea of being rugged and unconquerable. After all, how many 48 pound boys can take down a big guy like their 6’2″, 65-year-old granddad.

Among young boys, roughhousing involves pretending to be superheroes or good and bad guys. In our family, it can also mean a beautiful twenty-year-old section of English Ivy can morph into a hairy, bearded green monster which, according to our rules of engagement, may be attacked by the Troop Thurman/Ledford.

Why is this type of rough and tumble play so important for kids and grandkids? Without bothering you with a bunch of data, and there is a lot of it. The research tells us of many benefits of rough and tumble play, which I will go over in a minute. But first, let me ask you a question.

Have you ever played, tag, Red Rover, hide and seek? If you have, then you can relate.

The Benefits of Rough and Tumble Play

Because of this type of play, in particular, promotes healthy development because:

  • Children are willing participants, are usually smiling, and re-engage for more.
  • Children are learning the give and take of appropriate social interaction. Studies show boys who grow up with fathers and other suitable males who engage in rough and tumble play are less likely to be physically or sexually abusive to women as well as others who might be perceived as being weaker or more vulnerable.
  • Another benefit is this type of play teaches little boys restraint and self-control.
  • Children learn to read and understand body language (e.g., when play should come to an end).
  • It also meets many children’s need for safe, nurturing touch.
  • One of the most significant components of the type of play with fathers is how these older men, many times without realizing it, are teaching their boys a vital life lesson. Even though they are bigger and stronger, fathers “hold back” to keep from hurting their weaker opponent, an essential imprint many boys will unfortunately never experience. On a personal note, in over thirty-five years of private practice with about 30% of my time working with adolescence, I do not recall any significant levels of physical violence from clients who had grown up with experiencing rough and tumble play with family members. On the other hand, many of the young men I worked with, who had issues with physical violence either had no rough and tumble play memories, or had fathers who were disengage.
  • Finally, and some of you will surely feel like resisting me on this point, but this type of play allows fathers and other appropriate males to teach their kids some “keep safe” skills. Tools like risk avoidance, removing yourself from perceived danger, identifying “unsafe people” and even using some defensive striking or hitting techniques. I know when our son and our daughter were very young, we had a martial arts instructor teach them several defensive, strikes and moves should a bigger or older person intends to grab or harm them. I remember when Hannah, my baby girl, was about seven our pastor came over to the house for dinner. Now, he was a friend and had been to our home on many occasions. This night, during dinner, he asked her what she had been doing the day. She replied I have been in my self-protection class. At that point, the pastor asked what she was learning. I held my breath because in our home we always encourage honest communication. The pastor continued to engage her and said, “So what did you learn today?” She replied, “If a man or boy who is bigger than you is trying to hurt you or grab you, you are supposed to drive the heel of your foot into their foot and shove your elbow or fist in between their legs as hard as you can, scream, yell and run. Oh, and tell an adult what happened. The pastor smiled politely and told her he was proud she was such a strong young lady, while at the same time giving my wife and I the, “I’m not really surprised look.”

So why did I give you a mini-course in developmental psychology? Why did I surrender my yellow handled foam sword to my four-year-old grandson?

So why the title of Swords, Sandboxes and Life Transitions?

Because on the 26th of December my daughter, her husband and my two younger grandsons began their journey out of New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, a.k.a. The Land of Entrapment to their new home in the Republic of Texas. While my wife, Angie and I see clearly how the Lord has led them to this decision and transition in their life journey, I would be lying to you if I told you there was not some pain.

Like so many of you with grown children, and many more of you who are similar in age to my adult children these times are not without some challenges.

The Power and Importance of Reflective Memories during Life Transitions

On the morning of December 26th, I grabbed my first cup of caffeine infusion, opened the sunporch door to let “Gizmo” out for his morning business. While standing in the backyard two things caught my eye as I inhaled the delightful aroma of a cup of coffee made with beans from Timor, the first was the green turtle sandbox and the second was a fresh look at my backyard. Then it hit me, ever since our 7 years old moved down from Colorado back to New Mexico, I have watched him, and the younger boys spend hours in the green turtle sandbox. Memories of my little boys playing with toys, trucks, rocks, dirt, and sand. Little voices calling out to Mimi and Pa to come and watch and play with them. Cleaning up wet sandy spots where little hands and little feet had played in sand, dirt, and water and all of the dirt and debris which follows comes when they when they come inside. Seeing the excitement when they found treasure (marbles and colored stones my wife had put in the sandbox). Realizing I will not hear those little voices calling out, “Hey Pa, come see what I made, or can you come help me count my treasure with the frequency the I have become so fondly used to.

At the same time, I looked over our backyard/battlefield where my three grandsons, their dads and moms, my wife and I had fought imaginary bad guys, the Green English Ivy Monster, counted stars and eaten our fair share of smores. I loitered over my cup and had a flash of beautiful memories and realized this chapter was coming to a close. The noise of little boys was about to dramatically become quieter. It was a bittersweet, heart-swelling moment as I soaked the sights, sounds, and smells of those precious memories and moments.

While in this noteworthy moment, I noticed my allergies must have been acting up, you know the itchy watery eyes and sniffles. I guess I was having a small allergic reaction to the awareness of how we were facing this new transition. As the moment came and went I reflected on God’s goodness, mercy, and the blessings of children and grandchildren. I pulled up my cup for another sip and initiated the download for the DUO app which will allow us to get some video FaceTime with our new Texas family. I guess Mimi and I will be working on our Southwest frequent flyer miles to the Austin area.

My oldest grandson will still be here, and he is a red-headed inquisitive high energy boy who is filled with all of the excitement, wonder, and adventure of a seven-year-old. He will continue to come over and bless us with his presence, but being seven, he does not do much in the sandbox. He has graduated to climbing over our side yard concrete block fence and climbing up our apple tree to explore the world and have picnics from his perch on top of our utility shed. For those of you who are Star Wars fans, his father, myself, another male friend took him to his first Star Wars movies. As he told me the other day, “Pa I am not a little boy anymore, I am a big boy, after all, I am seven and can climb trees and do other really cool stuff. So while we will not have the same type of contact with the little boys, we will continue to fully engage with our seven-year-old and his mom and dad. While at the same time exploiting the connecting technology to stay appropriately plugged in with our other family.


I spent a part of my life in professional ministry as a minister to single adults, and I do have some understanding of some of the unique challenges you have with younger boys. I sincerely hope that you have some safe men, either family or trusted friends that can be available to your boys in these early, formative years. If you do not, I would ask you to prayer fully and wisely seek safe guys that can have some availability to you and your sons. I hope that you hear this as encouragement, because I have nothing but the upmost respect for the task you have at hand at raising your kids. May God Bless you.

Action Plan:

Would you agree that life is a cascade of transitions? As a seasoned mental health professional with over 50,000 hours in the therapist chair, I have learned several powerful, yet practical, doable ways to make it through these transitions as a better, stronger person. By signing up for my email list, you will receive regular, life-changing content as well as a free chapter from my latest book. All you need to is hit the subscribe button on the signup form.

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