The Play of Girls


Xiong Jing Nan (Courtesy of ONE Championship)

Search the web for gender-neutral toys and you will get back a ton of option and advice. This brouhaha has been going on for a couple of years and shows little sign of abating. The driving energy behind this discussion is twofold. We have come to recognize that sexual identity is a mixed bag, if you will, with all sorts of expressions. Second, we have also begun to understand that women have been conditioned to take a subservient role to their detriment and that of society. The one positive outcome of this debate has been the rejection of gender-stereotyped marketing as, for example, large chain stores like Target get rid of the pink and blue aisles.

At the core, this discussion of the role of sexual stereotyping boils down to a much longer and older debate about the influence of nature versus nurture. From a physiological standpoint, a baby is a boy or a girl at about nine weeks from conception, that is, very early on.  For a baby to become a boy the presence of androgen hormones, specifically testosterone is required. Indeed, the amount of testosterone during gestation largely determines the range of sexual expression in the baby and its later maturation; thus, sexual identity is a range rather than a binary result.

What does this mean for parents and society at large? The implications are that a child’s sexuality and its expression is fundamentally “hardwired” from a biological standpoint

The following fact may come as a shock to some, but boys and girls really are different:

  • Boys engage in more rough and tumble play than girls
  • Boys tend to be more aggressive than girls
  • While boys and girls show the same interest in infants, by the age of 6, girls are more interested
  • Boys are more interested in object-oriented play and use more tools than girls
  • Girls develop earlier, and more, language skills than boys

What is difficult is to sort out how biology and culture influence these tendencies. Let’s look at rough and tumble play for example. Fathers engage in more of this type of play than mothers and when they do they give more and rougher play to boys. Such vigorous handling conditions the child to aggressive behaviors in a playful way. As children begin to play with their peers

How is a girl to learn to become a winner if she never wins a play fight? Coming out a winner in play is not only possible, but it is also part of what makes play fun. First, the players have to be able to read each other’s faces and actions so that they know that the “fight” isn’t for real. Such combatants will often change roles with the dominant child “pulling their punches” so the other player gets to win. If the dominant child doesn’t turn down their aggressive responses, then the game will soon be over, and nobody wins. This sort of generosity builds social bonds of trust and respect and play is the perfect venue for such learning.

The bottom line?  Dads, it is OK, in fact, it’s great, to play rough with your girls. Moreover, it is time we accepted as a society that it’s really is OK for kids to play fight.

Our child-rearing practices regarding vigorous play is just one example of how we get child rearing wrong. So, when people talk about women having equal stature in society, we need to take a very critical look at our child-rearing assumptions and practices. In my next blog, we will examine the role play and careers in technology.

For more on this subject see:

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