Superheroes, fight scenes, and gun toys have traditionally been assigned to what we think of as "boy culture." Parents of girls often assume they'll never have to deal with violent fantasies or play. But their girls may surprise them—and the current generation of girls is surprising them more than any previous one. The more I study and work with children, the more instances I see of girls using make-believe violence for as many developmental purposes as boys. They often use it in different ways, and for slightly different purposes, but it can be just as important to them as to their brothers.
In early childhood, the play of boys and girls is more similar than different. Both are likely to be rough-and-tumble dinosaurs and then quiet down by playing mommy-and-baby. But toward the end of the preschool years, they begin to diverge. "Kindergarten," wrote Vivian Gussin Paley, "is a triumph of sexual self-stereotyping." Girls tend to pull away from play fighting by the end of preschool, often dramatically, and sometimes with a strong disapproval of the roughness of boys. Paley described the daily complaints of girls about boys who, as superheroes or robbers, invade and disrupt the quiet doll corner.
The phenomenon is almost universal across eras and cultures. Even the girls of the San, a group of Kalahari Bushmen with a culture quite unlike our own, tend to withdraw from rough-and-tumble play by about the age of six. Authorities offer various possible explana