Not too long ago I took my girls to a group picnic at a playground. I spent most of the afternoon following goat girl around as she climbed structures meant for four- and five-year-olds. Katherine and Clara spent most of their time on the swings. Towards the end of the picnic, there were more children than swings, so Katherine and Clara ended up sharing. They created some sort of game by which one pushed the other and then jumped out of the way to avoid being bumped as the swing came back. Shrieks of delight ensued. I mentally checked them off as happily occupied and continued to spot goat girl as she sought higher elevation.
After a while, I became vaguely aware of louder shrieks. I glanced over at the swings and saw that my girls’ game had escalated into a rougher version of their earlier play. Now, Clara was pumping as hard as she could in order to crash into Katherine, who was standing directly in front of her and no longer jumping out of the way. Both girls were willing participants, delighted with their high-impact game. These two have been playing like this all summer, and I’m used to it. But as I turned back to keep my eyes on Alexandra, it registered that several moms were looking at me expectantly. Slowly, it dawned on me that their expression read, “Are you going to do something about that?”
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, I went over to the girls, fully aware that the other moms were still watching me, and told them they were playing too roughly and needed to find a different game. They looked at me with surprise – usually I only step in when I think someone might get hurt, something might get broken, or they are way too loud for the space. But this play was perfectly acceptable to them, and to me. Yet I still stopped them: a classic case of performance parenting.
For the remainder of the picnic, I felt like “that mom”, the one with the wild kids. The one who either doesn’t know how to control her kids’ behavior, or worse yet, doesn’t see the need to. I had the urge to tell the other moms,“Wait! My girls are really good! They’re just having fun, this is how they play together!”
All evening I ran their play, and the other parents’ reaction, through my mind. Were my girls really that wild? Do other kids play rough? I’m pretty sure they do… but as I racked my mind for examples, I realized the question was not do other kids play rough, but do other girls play rough.
I see rough play all the time - on the playground, at school pickup, at birthday parties. But it is usually the boys. Boys wrestling, boys jumping on each other, and boys tumbling on top of each other like playful puppies. Sometimes their rough play bothers me– they knock things down, they crash into others, they look like they might hurt each other. But the words that echo around their play are “boy energy”. Expectant glances from observers (the kind that read, “are you going to do something about that?”) are often met with shrugs of acceptance mingled with modest pride. Boy energy.
There is no question boys and girls are different: in utero, male and female fetuses produce different levels of hormones, which influences development from the onset; studies measuring levels and location of brain activity show differences between men and women; and no one would argue against the fact that men and women are different physically.
But my girls have “boy energy” too, sometimes. As their mom, I should regard their rough play as something they need for their physical development. They are learning control over their bodies and their play should be respected, preserved. Yet, at the first glance from other parents, I felt compelled to shut it down – and I very rarely cave in to performance parenting. It was surprising to realize how deeply I am influenced by this societal norm, especially considering I typically reject traditional gender roles. My girls play with dolls and trucks. Their drawers are not dominated by pink. I mow the lawn and my husband does the laundry. We both cook. But those examples are superficial compared to the behavioral standards that I adhered to at the picnic.
I’m not going to attempt to delve into the complexity of these deep-seated gender norms and their consequences on our society. But I won’t cave in again when my girls play rough. I’ll be prepared with a slight shrug and a knowing smile as I voice the words, “girl energy”.