During play, your daughter is less likely to pretend to be the heroic figure commonly seen among boys; instead, the play of girls often revolves around school or domestic themes (they may rock their "baby" to sleep or apply a Band-Aid to their doll).
During play, your daughter is less inclined than her brother to physically fight with playmates. Instead, she'll settle differences by talking them out. If there are disagreements about the rules, girls are more likely than boys to suggest a compromise, saying "Let's make the rules different," or "Let's play a different game." They are less likely to yell at one another, feeling it's more important to maintain the relationship than to prevail during a disagreement. Their games are more inclined to involve turn-taking than those of boys.
Keep in mind that children learn from their play, so guide your daughters (and your sons) into a broad array of experiences. They should be given toys and directed into activities that go beyond the stereotypes of their sex. Thus, while it's fine to give your daughter a doll, also present her with traditional boys' toys, as well as with materials that she can play creatively with, giving her opportunities to make something with clay, cloth, or feathers.
Friends and Social Relationships
There seem to be fundamental gender differences between the way girls and boys perceive themselves and relate to the world around them. Compared with boys, girls are far more likely to have their personal identities tied to their friendships, which are primarily with other girls. Their sense of self is organized around being able to make and maintain these relationships. Much more than boys, girls appreciate and seem to need connections to other people. Because of this tendency, girls generally judge themselves as successful when they are caring and responsible. Girls also tend to talk about and assess their friendships much more than boys do.
In our culture, girls are raised to relate in so-called face-to-face intimacy, and thus are inclined to have conversationally based interactions with their girlfriends. These conversations are intended to create and maintain relationships. Yes, boys talk to one another, but their interactions tend to be "side-by-side intimacy," organized around an activity (playing with a tractor or a video game) or similar interest.
More than boys, girls are likely to have a "best friend" or two, although those special friends may change frequently. They will share their secrets with and write confidential notes to their best friend. Girls often hold hands, give hugs to each other, and arrange social occasions just to be together, not because a particular activity is planned.
Your eleven- or twelve-year-old daughter may discuss her relationships at the dinner table, while boys are less likely to talk in this way. Girls are also more inclined to become emotionally distressed when a friendship breaks up or when they move away from their best friend.
The natural tendency toward gender-segregated friendships in the middle years has an unfortunate consequence. It limits the opportunities for girls and boys to get to know and appreciate one another before the sexual attraction of puberty places them together. Ideally, girls need boys as friends (and vice versa) if they are to have good relationships as teenagers and good marriages as adults. You should encourage and provide opportunities for your school-age daughter to play with boys. However, you are likely to meet with some resistance. Girls of this age simply prefer to play with girls, and boys with boys.
As girls move through their middle years and approach adolescence, they tend to be reluctant to take risks in relationships for fear of displeasing others. They may refrain from asserting themselves and taking credit for their accomplishments. They may avoid criticizing or disagreeing with others, or to make their likes, wants, and needs known. They may have trouble saying no to someone with whom they have an important relationship. When girls have conflicts, they often avoid direct confrontation, and rather retaliate by attempting to damage the other girl's friendships or social status.
School-age girls have some advantages over the boys in the classroom. In general, girls seem able to pay attention longer than boys. Verbal skills also tend to mature earlier in girls.
Traditionally, girls perform better in English and as well or better than boys in mathematics through about the fifth and sixth grades. But on the brink of adolescence, and during the teenage years, the top-performing girls often begin doing less well in math than they once did. By the time your middle-years daughter reaches high school, the top performing math students in her class will disproportionately be boys.
What's the reason for this? Teachers often have lower expectations for girls in math, and may have biases in favor of boys. Research shows that teachers are more likely to call on boys during math instruction.
The gap between girls and boys may be narrowing, however, because many school districts are making efforts to encourage and support girls in mathematics. In some schools, administrators have instituted girls-only math and science classes, believing that girls will feel more confident and less intimidated in this learning environment (some research shows that poor achievement in math is preceded by a loss of confidence in the subject).
Of course, girls can do well in math and science, and their own beliefs and self-confidence in this area are influenced strongly by parents (low expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy). Let your daughter know that your hopes for her in school are just as high as they are for her brothers, and that careers in math and science are just as appropriate for her as for boys.
Emotional Development and Self-Esteem
Girls mature emotionally earlier than boys. In the middle years, they find it easy to express their emotions verbally, and their self-esteem tends to be strong and resilient. They may be full of themselves—confident, adventurous, secure, and certain of their ability to do valuable things in the world. From their youthful point of view, anything is possible.
However, as girls approach and enter adolescence, their self-esteem can become more fragile. In about one third of girls, a decline in self-esteem becomes pronounced and long-lasting. Sadness, anxiety, and eating disorders are more prevalent in girls on the brink of becoming teenagers. Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, some girls lose much of their emotional strength and spirit. They may develop a crisis in confidence and become depressed. Their optimism dampens, and they become less likely to take chances. By adolescence, girls are much more likely than boys to say that they are "not good enough" to attain all of their dreams.
By the time girls enter high school, less than one third of them report being happy with the way they are. When it comes to body image, negative feelings can begin much earlier. As young as the age of seven, many girls start becoming self-critical of their bodies, and up to fifty percent of nine-year-old girls have already tried dieting. Some may find themselves on the fast track to eating disorders, which are often associated with depression and even thoughts of suicide.
Particularly as girls enter adolescence, they become more reluctant to assert themselves and take credit for their accomplishments. They may refrain from criticizing or disagreeing with others, or making their likes, wants, and needs known. They may set less challenging and lofty goals, and may see their futures with more uncertainty.
Of course, this need not be the case. As a parent, you should help your middle-years child hold on to her strong sense of confidence and self-worth. Recognize and reinforce your youngster's positive traits. Applaud her efforts and achievements at every opportunity. And to counter some of the messages that girls get from the media that her appearance is crucial, help your daughter value the things she does rather than how she looks.
Since adolescence threatens to diminish individuality, parents should help children discover their unique talents and interests. Support your child in the belief that it is okay to be different—that difference is special and valued. Talk with your youngster about things she likes about herself, and about things you particularly like as well.
Also, talk with your daughter about her dreams and her anxieties, and what may be getting in the way of feeling good about herself. Encourage her to believe that she can become anything she chooses. Help her find opportunities to experience success, and reward her when she is assertive and shows pride in her accomplishments.
Sports and Physical Activity
Most parents recognize that it's just as important for girls to be physically active and fit as boys. Fortunately, today's school-age girls have more chances to participate in organized sports—from softball to soccer to gymnastics—than their mothers and grandmothers ever did.
As with boys, girls can learn many lessons about life through their athletic participation, including teamwork, perseverance, risk-taking, and strategic thinking. Even so, girls are more likely to encounter limitations associated with their athletic participation. Parents often worry more about girls' getting hurt, and some parents still think that competitiveness (not to mention getting dirty) is neither feminine nor "ladylike." Too often, expectations are communicated that boys are inherently better equipped than girls to compete in sports.
Emphasize the positive in your daughter's physical activity, whether she's running track or dancing ballet. Encourage her to develop her athletic skills in accordance with her interests and capabilities. Sports are a valuable environment in which she can prove her competence and enjoy success.