Why You Should Wrestle with Your Daughter

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve got twins—one girl, one boy—and we love to wrestle together. I always thought I was treating them the same, but a few days ago, my wife told me that she thinks I play very differently with them—very physically with my son and much more gentle with my daughter. I started paying attention and I have to admit that she’s right. So now I’m wondering: is there any actual reason to be more gentle with my daughter? And should I be more gentle with my son?

A: No and no. Assuming you’re playing in a safe way and the kids are having fun (you should always take your cues from them), there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be just as rough and tumble with your daughter as you are with her brother. As the father of three daughters, I can assure you that little girls are just as sturdy as boys. In fact, based on science, one might argue that girls are actually sturdier. Although more males are conceived, more die in utero. And while more boys than girls are born, boys are more likely to be arrive prematurely and they’re more susceptible to disease and death. Boys are more likely than girls to die from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and less likely to survive the first year than girls. As they get older, boys are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and many other conditions.
Despite all that, we still have this idea that girls are delicate and need to be physically coddled. That’s an idea that starts from the very beginning. What’s the first question people ask when someone has had a baby? Boy or girl? We ask because we want to know how to treat the child in question. Parents (both dads and moms) encourage independence and exploration more in boys than girls. They typically (and unconsciously) allow boys to cross the street by themselves at younger ages and wait a few seconds longer before picking up a boy who’s fallen than a girl. And, of course, they wrestle more with sons than daughters.
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My Husband Treats Our Son and Daughter Differently

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?

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:
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When to Shake, Rattle, and Roll and When Not To

Dear Mr. Dad: I have a 10 month old son. For the past two months, he and i have enjoyed “wrestling” – that is, I lie on my back and he crawls around on top of me and slides off or rolls off (guided so he doesn’t really crash). I also occasionally hold him upside down by his hips. In all of this, my son laughs. Mom is not good with our wrestling and thinks I am far too rough. Can you offer some guidance?

A: You say three things in your letter that tell me you’re taking reasonable precautions. First, you’re making sure your son doesn’t crash. Shaken Baby Syndrome—which can cause brain damage, spinal cord injuries, and worse—isn’t always about shaking. Abrupt jerking or whiplash motions could cause problems too. So guiding him from your chest to the floor is a good idea.

Second, you’re keeping a firm grip on your baby as you hold him upside down. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about being upside down—after all, babies spend a good portion of their time in the womb with their feet in the air. Your wife may be worried that you’ll cause brain damage or that you’ll dislocate your baby’s hips, knees, or ankles. There’s absolutely no evidence that validates either of those fears. (All three of my children spent half their life dangling upside down and they’re all doing just fine, physically and intellectually.) As long as you’re not swinging your baby, and as long as you’re keeping his head from snapping around, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Third—and most important—is that your baby is laughing. He may not be able to speak actual words, but he’s perfectly capable of communicating pleasure and displeasure—and he’s not going to be terribly subtle about it. If your baby wasn’t having a good time, he’d let you know by fussing, crying, or trying to wriggle out of your arms. Just be sure to pay close attention to how he’s reacting and stop immediately when it’s not fun anymore (for the baby, not for you—although you should stop then too).

As far as guidance, I’ve got several suggestions.

  • Make an appointment with your baby’s pediatrician and consider it a kind of binding arbitration. Demonstrate for the doc what you’re doing at home. If you get a thumbs up, your wife agrees to back off. If it’s a thumbs down, you agree to adjust your baby handling to whatever the doc says is safe.
  • Assuming that the pediatrician okays your baby gymnastics routines, it might be a good idea to do your training at a time your wife isn’t going to be around to worry.
  • Talk to your wife. She wouldn’t have married you if she really thought that you’d be a danger to children. Tell her that there’s lots of evidence that babies who wrestle with their fathers grow up to have more highly developed social skills—including empathy—than kids who don’t get as much time rolling around with dad.
  • Expand your horizons. There are plenty of ways to interact physically with your baby that are a bit calmer. For example, babies his age love chasing and being chased, so get out your knee pads and start crawling.
  • Time your physical activity. Too soon after a meal and you’ll end up having to wash baby spit-up off your shoes and the floor. Too close to bedtime and your baby may have trouble settling into sleep mode.