Q: My husband loves to wrestle with our twins, but he treats them so differently when they play rough. He’s very gentle with our daughter and much more physical with our son. I guess I’m wondering about two things: Is there any reason to be more gentle with girls than boys, and is there any chance that a lot of wrestling could make our son violent?
A: With all the talk about youth violence these days, parents are constantly on the lookout for anything that might be responsible for the problem. One common theory is the one you raise, that physical play and roughhousing-which is something dads spend a lot of time doing-teaches kids to be violent. The evidence, however, supports the exact opposite conclusion:
- There’s a limit to the number of times a father (or anyone, for that matter) is going to allow his child to poke him in the eye or elbow him in the mouth while you’re wrestling. The bottom line is that kids who roughhouse with their fathers learn pretty quickly that poking and elbowing and biting and kicking and other forms of physical violence just aren’t okay.
- Kids whose dads play with them tend to be more helpful, take on leadership roles, and develop clearer communication skills. Kids who don’t get any physical play are more likely to be apprehensive and have trouble getting along with others.
Playing with dad impacts boys differently than girls. The more socially and emotionally nurturing a dad is to his young son, the better he’ll do in school (and later, in college), and the higher he’ll score on IQ and other similar tests. Overall, more involved fathers tend to have more empathetic and better-behaved sons.
While it seems pretty intuitive that dads would have an influence on their sons’ development (after all, they both share that pesky Y chromosome) girls, too, benefit. Girls whose dads play with them physically a lot tend to be more popular with their peers, more assertive (making it less likely that they will passively accept their environment later in life), more interested in higher levels of education, and more active in sports. And girls who stay active in sports are much less likely to get pregnant as teens.
Some of these difference may exist because fathers (somewhat more than mothers) treat–and thus impact–their boys and girls differently. To start with, men tend to play and interact more physically with their boy infants than with their girls. (Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that girls are delicate and that they shouldn’t be played with as roughly as boys. But there’s some evidence that girls are actually hardier than boys; although more boys are conceived, more girls are born. They survive childhood illness better than boys and in tests of general fitness, girls outperform boys every time.) And later on, they give their boys more encouragement to be independent and to explore. Boys are allowed to cross the street alone earlier, to stay away from home more, and to explore a wider area of their neighborhood than are girls.
The different ways adults play with their sons and daughters is partly responsible for developing children’s sex-typed behavior, especially for boys. So if you’re interested in reducing the chances that your kids-the boy and the girl-will end up trapped in a set of gender-based behaviors, have your husband keep playing with them (and jump in too!). The moral of the story? You should both treat your daughter the same way you treat your son. She won’t break. In fact, she’ll benefit enormously.