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Boys against girls: Is it possible to get girls and boys to cooperate?

QUESTION: I coach a co-ed volleyball team for 4th-6th graders at my daughter's school. Sometimes it is boys against girls and sometimes it is simply picking on someone weaker. How can I prevent girls and boys from forming cliques, which exclude others?

ANSWER: It is natural for girls and boys to exclude the opposite sex in social games at this age. While you may be able to mitigate tendencies for scapegoating, it is unlikely that you will be able to go against nature.

Still, consider the following guidelines for encouraging respectful play:

Build team spirit

Focus boys and girls on the goal of competing with the opposite team. By doing so, you will redirect their energies towards a common goal. Keep a roster up in clear view that identifies the name and time schedule of the teams you will be playing against. When disruptive behaviors occur between girls and boys, ask them to keep in mind what they are working for, together as a team. Focus them on their next opponents. But do not stop there! Involve the team in pleasurable social activities that promote team spirit. Trips to sporting events and a team picnic that includes their families can help children embrace a larger sense of community.

Teach respect for all positions and reward cooperation

It is a coach's job to instill value for all members of a team. Using individual strengths in pivotal positions can fortify team power. But allowing practice in all positions on a rotating basis ensures skill building for all members. Point out where a particular girl's talent shines, and put a boy in the position of supporting her performance, and vice versa. Try different combinations of positions, such as boy-girl alternations, and boys in the back positions, girls in the front. Reverse positions so boys and girls have equal opportunity to build skills in all positions.

Teach respect and sportsmanship

Instill respect for the losing side in all practices and in games with opponents. Self-respect comes in part from treating others with appreciation for game participation. Adopt the practice of joining together as a group after each practice game with a group yell that appreciates first your own team, and then the other team as a worthy opponent no matter who won or lost. Finalize this respect with the traditional line up for shaking hands with the other side. Rituals like these help children of both sexes incorporate the attitude of respect, rather than just pay lip service to the idea of good sportsmanship.

girl/boy pairings for practice set up and clean-up

Why not pair boys and girls (two of each sex) for set-up and/or clean-up detail. Helping set up the volleyball net or take it down encourages them to work together, outside of the actual playing field, towards a common sports related goal. With two of each sex, there will be some healthy identification with the same gender, while allowing for the possibility of cooperative interaction in small groups between opposite sexes, too.

Finally, allow for some healthy tension between girls and boys. After all, this is a period of same sex identification for boys and girls alike. While respectful contact between girls and boys can be encouraged at this age, do not be surprised to find that separate social circles quickly re-establish themselves off the playing field!

Rest assured, however, that you have facilitated emotional growth that will come into play when these boys and girls reach puberty. They may likely be less awkward, and more confident when they are ready for appropriate social interactions with the opposite sex.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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