It may seem impossible for boys and girls to get along, but you can help bridge the gap. Back in kindergarten, Sadie Kramer was best buds with two boys. But as soon as she entered first grade, she wouldn’t dare be caught on the swing set with them. “My husband and I stayed close to the boys’ parents, but whenever our families got together, Sadie freaked out and was convinced I was trying to ruin her life,” says her mom, Stacy, of Brooklyn, New York. Maybe you’ve noticed the boys-versus-girls showdown in your own home. Has Zack, your daughter’s lifelong BFF, suddenly caught a bad case of cooties? Does your son’s gang now consist entirely of dudes? “Although girls and boys start separating in preschool, the divide can be dramatic at this age,” says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
This split is totally natural - scientists even see it among some animals. By age 6, kids have a pretty good understanding of what it means to be a boy or a girl. “The simplest way to define yourself is to be different from another group, so boys and girls tend to stick to activities that help make sense of who they are and who they aren’t,” says Dr. Eliot. Transformers and baseball? Boys only. Hannah Montana and playing house? Girl stuff. Even if kids work side by side in class, boys and girls typically veer o in opposite directions when left to their own devices. The two sexes each have their own unique modes of play. Boys’ rough-and-tumble competitive games often clash with the girls’ more cooperative style of having fun. Hang around the playground long enough, and you’ll notice that girls beeline to areas where adults are present, while boys tend to dash as far from authority figures as possible.
Boys also gravitate toward large groups playing sports or video games. This builds their spatial and visual skills, which help them in math and science, and teaches the thrill of trying to win - all things that may foster future success in the workplace. Meanwhile, girls are exercising their verbal and communication muscles with elaborate imaginative play. But just because boys and girls are different doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from playing with each other. In fact, your challenge is to perform some stealth interventions so your son gets the chance to play cooperatively or your daughter experiences both winning and losing. We have some ways to make that happen.
Minding the Gaps
Be aware of your own stereotypes. If Mom cooks every meal or Dad always takes out the trash, you’ll reinforce the idea that each sex has a specific set of skills. “Try to use family time to emphasize activities that are getting lost in the same-sex shuffle,” advises Clare Mehta, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Boston. For example, make sure the toys in your house promote a variety of play. If you have a daughter, suggest games that require her to be assertive and competitive. Build a fort, play cards or basketball - many girls avoid participating in activities where someone has to lose and be disappointed. The next time your girly-girl has a birthday, wrap up some building toys with her American Girl swag. Engage your son in pastimes that promote cooperation and communication, such as cooking or working on a crafts project.
Making the Team
If your kid isn’t already an athlete, encourage him or her to get involved in organized sports. It doesn’t have to be a coed group. Being part of any kind of team can help both boys and girls be more wellrounded, says Shari Young Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., author of Raising Winners: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Kids Succeed on and off the Playing Field. No matter what sport they’re playing, boys will learn about teamwork - something they don’t get from just chasing each other on the playground. For girls, organized athletics aren’t only about physical activity (which is crucial if your daughter isn’t getting a lot of exercise); they also help them feel positive about their body.
Mixing the Guests
Just because your son won’t join in with the girls at school doesn’t mean he might not chill out with them in the privacy of his own home, so suggest having a female classmate over. “Playdates with the opposite sex are a great way to expose your child to what he might be missing,” says Dr. Mehta. “Both kids will feel less pressure to stick to stereotypes when their other friends aren’t around.” Who knows? Your son might be psyched to dig into his old dress-up box when his gal pal is over. If he refuses to invite a girl from class, you might find that he’ll happily get together with girls in your neighborhood - it may be preferable, for example, to having to play with a younger sibling!
Missing the Friends
Most kids go with the flow and accept this new social divide that’s occurring among the boys and girls in school, but some will be rightfully upset about why an amigo is giving them the cold shoulder. If your child is bummed that her former kindergarten pal refuses to include her in a game of tag, let her know that it’s not personal. At this age, she needs your help to understand the social scene. You can keep the old relationship alive by inviting the friend and his family over for dinner or a day at the zoo. When it’s family-oriented, it takes the pressure off the kids since they really don’t have any other option but to interact with each other. Believe us: They may not be joined at the hip anymore, but girls and boys can still have a blast together, even if they deny the fun the next day.