Why I treat my girls like boys

I’ve got two daughters under the age of three and we love to “rhubarb.” For the uninitiated, “rhubarbing” is when my girls rumble and roll and muck about with me on my bed.

While jumping, kicking or hitting are out, the other rules of rhubarbs are simple. I flip the girls about on the mattress; everyone is rolling around while not breaking anything.

I learned recently that “rhubarbs” might be helping my daughters’ mental health.

Don’t panic. My wife regularly does safety checks. With monitoring of proximity to edge of the bed and angle of young bodies coming in to land, rhubarb time is fun times. There are lots of smiles … unless I stop.

I haven’t thought much about the long-term impact of rhubarbs (beyond protecting against injury). But I learned recently that rhubarbs might be helping my daughters’ mental health. A study conducted in Australia and the Netherlands revealed that parents who have “rough and tumble” play with their kids before they get to preschool are “likely protecting their children from developing childhood anxiety disorders.”

Wow. The potential benefits of regular rhubarbing.

The study involved more than 300 families and was conducted by Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Reading in England. For me, the notable discovery was that Australian and Dutch dads admitted to being more competitive and “rough and tumble” with their sons, while daughters were more protected and princessed.

I get their distinction between genders. I see it every day in my house: My oldest daughter loves headbands, bangles and tutus; My youngest can’t get enough of hugs. Cars, superheroes and wrestling aren’t high on the agenda of my tiny daughters.

I get nervous when they climb stuff or perch at the top of staircases – and I’m not sure I’d be so worried about such risk-taking, if they were boys. But before reading the study, I hadn’t realised that our regular rhubarbs have us venturing out of princess territory and into rough and tumble.

You only need spend a few seconds there to discover it’s a tinderbox of philosophies, axioms and approaches

Before I proudly declare how I’m single-handedly immunising my girls against anxiety issues, read the fine print of this study endorsing something called “Challenging Parental Behaviour,” which is defined as “active physical and verbal behaviours that encourage children to push their limits.”

“While [CPB] isn’t a cure for anxiety, and we cannot at this stage determine causality, the results are promising in terms of parent education,” concluded Professor Jennie Hudson, one of the study’s authors. “By gently encouraging their kids in a reasonable way to push their limits, parents could be helping to reduce their child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder.”

I’ve only been in the parenting universe for a few years so, officially, I’m not expert. And you only need spend a few seconds there to discover it’s a tinderbox of philosophies, axioms and approaches. Seems as if there are as many different ways to parent as there are parents. And as many different ways to offend and upset parents, as there are to affirm and support them.

I was struck by how the research made me think about the way I treat my girls.

However, what stood out to me about the “rough and tumble” research had nothing to do with whether it was promoting a particular brand of gender theory or family dynamics. I’m not looking to promote CPB, or even the wider use of rhubarbing as a parenting tool.

I’m also keenly aware that parenting infants is a much different ball-game to parenting older children, let alone how the issues and influence of gender affect that ongoing relationship. I’ve got plenty to learn about the way girls grow up and how that compares and contrasts with the raising of boys.

But what I was most struck by from the research is how it made me think about the way I treat my girls – and how I think I treat them like boys … when it comes to anxiety.

Hear me out. While I don’t have sons, I know I would rhubarb with them. I’d also reasonably encourage them to push their limits. But that’s not where I’d like to stop with helping my kids to try to head off anxiety – and that has nothing to do with their gender. It has everything to do with them being my kids, along with my understanding that God’s approach to anxiety is gender neutral.

The Bible is not intended to be a step-by-step guidebook for parents and there are stacks of insights, strategies and techniques from elsewhere that can help me as a dad. But the Bible does share incredible guidance for living well that equally extends to girls or boys.

For example, there are some comforting insights into dealing with anxiety in one section of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), or in the closing chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“… I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

These insights into approaching anxiety don’t suggest life is guaranteed to be sweet or we should slap on a “don’t worry, be happy” Band-aid. But they point me and my children – and anyone else – to a stable port in the storms of life. A secure place with a perspective beyond my own anxiety and into what God does, provides and offers.

So, I treat my girls like boys not because rhubarbing is a hoot or I now believe it will cure them of anxiety.

I treat my girls like boys because God cares about girls and boys, women and men, and helping us to cope with anxiety.