Tree-Climbing vs. Tea Parties
Watch children at recess in any elementary-school playground, and you will be struck by stark differences between the girls' and the boys' styles of play. Boys compete, wrestle, and behave in physically challenging ways. Girls talk and listen intently to each other in pairs or small groups, and encourage one another in cooperative games. One researcher describes girls' friendships as "face-to-face" and boys' as "side-by-side." Speculation about how much, if anything, biology has to do with it continues, but one thing seems clear: there is no equal-opportunity issue here. School-aged kids are first and foremost intent on meeting social expectations. More than anything, they want to have friends and fit in.
Individuals vs. Groups
If we look at children (and adults too) as individuals, not as group members, many of our theories about gender-linked behavior weaken or disappear. For example, we've all heard that boys are more physically aggressive and girls "talk things over" when they disagree. That is quite an accurate observation of children playing in same gender groups. But we now know that many a demure-seeming girl is likely to let loose with physical aggression — if she is convinced no peer is watching. Girls do report admiring other girls who are kind and thoughtful, wanting them for friends, while boys are more inclined to report admiring other boys who are tough and strong, even unacceptably aggressive in adults' eyes. Those are the socially acceptable gender differences. But it is important to remember that such clear temperamental and behavioral differences only hold up when we are observing groups of same-gender children at play. Ask mothers about signs of sensitivity, kindness, and gentleness in their sons. Many of those tough guys have a sweet side revealed mainly at home.
The bottom line is that what is most important to both girls and boys is fitting in, and being accepted. But behind that social self, each boy and each girl is unique in temperament and behavioral style.
Predicting the Future
It is perhaps even more important for us to understand that just because a girl prefers dress-up play to football doesn't mean she is any less likely to become a neurosurgeon, engineer, or explorer when she grows up. What is most likely to influence her future willingness to take positive risks is a quiet sense of having been accepted, valued, and enjoyed just as she is, however she is, by her parents. Offering your girl or boy all sorts of opportunities for learning and developing skills in sports, as well as more sedentary activities, is fine. Just take your lead from whatever appeals to each individual child. If she doesn't love crafts or drawing, but does love horseback riding or drama, be proud and encouraging. If she loves basketball or debating and shows less interest in chatting and jumping rope with other girls, be just as proud and encouraging. In most cases, with such parental support, both boys and girls will figure out how to seem "cool" in same gender groups and still be true to themselves.