I've got twins — one girl, one boy — and we love wrestling together. I always thought I was treating them the same, but a few days ago, my wife told me that she's thinks I play very differently with them — very physically with my son and much gentler 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 gentler with my daughter? And should I be gentler with my son?
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 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, 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 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.
The bottom line is that wrestling with your kids is good for both of them. To start with, both boys and girls whose dad plays physically with them tend to be more curious, more helpful, have more friends, are more likely to take on leadership roles, and learn to communicate more clearly than kids whose dads are less physical with them.
There are also a few areas where dads influence their boys and girls differently. Well-wrestled boys tend to be more empathetic and better behaved than other boys. Although empathy isn't an emotion typically associated with men, kids who roughhouse with their fathers discover pretty quickly that biting, elbowing, head-butting, kicking, scratching and other kinds of violence simply aren't okay. Physically engaged boys also do better in school.
As for girls, those who play physically with their dads tend to be more assertive, more popular with their peers, and are more active in sports. Female athletes are a lot less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, get in trouble with the law, or become teen parents. They also tend to go further in their careers than girls with less physically engaging dads.
My suggestion is that you keep on doing what you're doing with your son, but take things up a notch with your daughter (again, assuming she likes it). She won't break. In fact, you'll be giving her a wonderful gift that she'll treasure for the rest of her life.