Question: I have a boy and a girl. They play so differently. My son is really into rough-and-tumble games—the furniture takes a beating. With my daughter it’s all about her dolls and their clothes and relationships. I don’t want to support gender stereotypes, but this is just the way it happened. Should I be pushing my daughter to be more assertive and asking my son to tone it down?
Discussion: This question comes up quite often. We know gender differences can be a touchy subject, so let’s be clear from the start: Of course, girls can play strongly and assertively in sports. We recognize this and want to encourage it. There are clear developmental differences between girls and boys, however, and we do really need to embrace them and yet be careful to not buy into old stereotypes.
When young girls play, they often work things out and find their way through relationships. In general, the cooperative and collaborative centers of their brains become active quite a bit earlier than they do in boys. In young boys’ brains, visual and spatial development are at the forefront. They are more movement oriented and seek stimulation through kinetic play. They want to bump up against things and each other, and wrestle and tumble about.
Solution: Understanding these differences may help you put up with a little more “rough and tumble” in your son and help you see why your daughter plays more quietly, either alone or with her playmates. Neither is a negative, so let’s not worry too much about pushing boys or girls in a certain direction. They will develop into healthy, involved athletes and adults if they have good play experiences in their younger years, regard- less of our efforts. They can be guided, however, and should be, when things go awry.
As Steve Biddulph underscores in Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different—and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well- Balanced Men, is crucial that boys learn the boundaries of rough play. They need to be taught how to play without hurting others, and when to stop. This helps them develop the self-control that will allow them to navigate sticky situations later on in life. That’s why it’s so important that we not back off and say, “They’re just being boys,” but actually step in when things get too rough and ensure that they understand boundaries.
Girls, on the other hand, can remain in a deep imaginative state—such as dressing and undressing their dolls repeatedly in solitary play. That’s fine for a while, but we would likely become concerned if the girl developed a habit of strongly refusing to let anyone play with her or even alongside her or touch anything she is playing with. We can also enliven girls’ play by helping them develop more complex story lines for their dolls. Once they are engaged and building relationships through collaborative play, things can turn negative if they lose sight of the boundaries of appropriateness.
Whether its girls being mean or boys getting carried away, children need to be guided back into a more positive mode of play. We take care not to normalize antisocial play through parental inaction. A “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” permissive mentality does not serve our children well. When social “rough and tumble” play manifests itself in girls as quiet but mean words or “dagger looks” and cliquish or overcontrolling behavior, the best thing to do is step right in, just as you would with rough boys, and tell your daughter that this behavior is unacceptable.
A strategy we highly recommend is to Disapprove, then Affirm, and then Redirect. You might say, “Hey Jennifer, we don’t talk like that in our family.” Then build her back up by saying, “You don’t always behave like that. You do perfectly well most of the time. Yesterday you played really well with Michelle and had a great time.” Then suggest an entirely new game or activity she can play with Michelle, removing them from the context in which the argument erupted.
When girls learn appropriate social boundaries, it has a positive effect on their future play in sports. They will be less prone to cliquish behavior with teammates, which can often become an overwhelming obstacle to team unity in sports. Talk to any girls’ youth coach, and she’ll tell you that she spends a lot of valuable time dealing with cliques and hurt feelings, which she’d much rather dedicate to teaching skills or running fun drills.
Boys who learn not to push and shove or “get in someone’s space” are learning spatial appropriateness. That will help them function more effectively as part of a team and also improve their understanding of the use of space in movement: moving into space, passing into space. Basically, any child who is taught boundaries understands his or her own space, another’s space, and empty space, which is critical to moving a ball around effectively in team sports. ♦
From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)