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She's ten and mostly plays with the boys, fitting in well due to her easy-going nature, outstanding athleticism, strong sense of fair play, and wild and crazy sense of humor. She's super competitive, one of the leaders of the pack in terms of ability, while still stopping to help the kids who need rules/strategies explained. The problem is, from her point of view there's nothing on the other side of puberty to look forward to. The boys will be getting stronger; she will be getting breasts. Not fair! She's miserable about this and it hasn't even started yet.

EDIT:

Since a large part of the community are also members of StackOverflow, I’ll try translating this question to mathematics.

Say you are ten and you are good at math. You're always looking things up on Khan Academy, you’re very competitive (Math Olympiad, anyone?), but you still help the non-math kids with their math homework. You and your math friends go to math camp, are learning to program, have Raspberry Pi on your Christmas lists.

Recently you found out that over the next four years, most of your friends’ math intelligence is going to get a four-fold boost. Even some of the kids you help with math will get this boost. You, on the other hand, will get a two-fold boost. Plus, you are going to have a French accent whenever you talk about math. Not an ugly French accent – it will be pleasant, but it will be noticeable.

So, how happy would you be if someone said to you, “That’s okay, you don’t have to be any less mathematical, just because everyone else is going to be better! It’s not only about being the best. While other kids are doing calculus or even multivariable calculus in a few years, you can still have fun with trigonometry! Or, why don’t you learn to cook? You get to use math to measure things in cooking, right? Besides, don’t a lot of cooks have a French accent?”

What can you say that is comforting but not patronizing?

EDIT, seven years later:

What happened:

My daughter found the reality of being a girl wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be. She remains better than 98% of the boys at her chosen sport, and she finds it hard enough to compete with the girls at the National level that competing with the boys is no longer a goal she worries about.

TL;DR: Things continued fine until seventh grade. Seventh and eighth grade were not great. At lunch, she had always sat with the boys at the “baseball/soccer table,” but in seventh grade they started looking at pron on their phones during lunch. They didn’t exclude her, but she was uncomfortable, so she found some boring girls to sit with (“boring” because they weren’t interested in sports, but at least this group wasn’t obsessing about boys and clothes and make-up).

The school part of her middle school experience remained enjoyable, but things got worse in the sports area. Several of the boys got better than her at baseball, and the middle school baseball coach preferred giving playing time to the boys, even when they weren’t nearly as good as she, because “the boys are going to be the future of baseball at this school.” This naturally became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

She switched schools for ninth grade and decided to try dressing like a girl. Here’s where things got interesting, because in doing this, my competitive kid found a whole new area to be competitive in. She found she enjoyed dressing to look good. At least a third of the girls at the new school were as competitive at sports as she, so she made good female friends; the boys were more mature that those at her previous school, so she made good male friends. Breasts were not as problematic as she’d expected, partly because she’s so athletic that hers didn’t get too big.

So, it worked out. It’s still doesn't seem fair that guys can build muscle so much more easily than girls, but there are enough other things going on in her life that she really only notices that when she’s in the gym.

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    I really think your assumption that this means the end of her ability to be competitive and to continue being an athletic star has to come to an end isn't necessarily true. She may have to work a little harder than the boys to get there - but when has that not been true for women trying to break through the glass ceiling? Puberty isn't the end and role models can help her see that. – balanced mama Dec 20 '13 at 6:51
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    Puberty isn't the end, but it's a set-back she's going to have to work around. We'll frame it that way. That's an awesome link, BTW. She's always said that she was going to play for the Red Sox someday! I'll show her that article, and we'll see what happens if she puts some serious effort into becoming the first woman to make it to the major leagues. – Ossum's Mom Dec 20 '13 at 15:08
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    Just checking: has she ever said things like "I wish I was a boy" or "I think God made a mistake when he made me a girl" or "I'm in the wrong body"? Because if so that would change the answer a lot. – DanBeale May 18 '15 at 18:48
  • @DanBeale - I agree that's an interesting angle worth exploring, but as Freud said, OTOH, a pre-teen complaining about life may be simply pre-teen being dramatic and feeling life is unfair and NOT necessarily a gender mis-alignment issue. – user3143 May 18 '15 at 21:31
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    +1 @DanBeale's comment. I knew a kid who dreaded puberty and getting breasts too and that person turned out to be transgender. – jcmack Apr 28 '19 at 23:40
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First, puberty and all the emotions that go with it, include trepidation for even the "girly-girls." The arrival of breasts is also highly troublesome for girls that do a lot of dancing (changes center of gravity and REALLY messes with spins and turns). The whole thing has a lot of negatives for anyone that is choosing to look at it that way. It might help her to know that even though she may be unique, her feelings aren't all that different from what some others are feeling too.

Second, being an athletic girl, no longer really qualifies as being a "tom boy." There are plenty of very "feminine women" as well that are highly athletic. Instead of labels, start seeing your daughter as just being her wonderful, amazing and unique self. It is the very best way you can help her do the same for herself. Your attitude and thoughts about such "labels" will come through in how you speak with her about things as well as your actions, even if you never use the label directly with her. Labels like "tom-boy" are highly limiting because they tend to psychologically put the person that believes they are the label into a "box." Try thinking of her as a human being with a set of qualities - she is athletic as well as a few other things: Highly intelligent? Empathetic toward others? Just and Fair? Humerous? I culled some of these qualities from your own question, so I understand you recognize them - but does your daughter? Adolescents tend to put themselves in boxes where they think of themselves as "fitting in" and they need our help to be free of stereotypes and limitations.

None of the qualities you listed in your question are strictly "male." Honor them as qualities rather than part of a label.

One of the next best things you can probably do for your daughter is to look for adult role models she can look to as examples of women that took their femininity and embraced it while also succeeding athletically (ESPN's Top 40 female athletes). What about the likes of Mia Hamm, Misty May Treanor, and Bonnie Blair? Their breasts (and all that comes along with them) didn't get in their way - why should your daughters? Start talking about them, watching biographical sketches and interviews, reading biographies . . . How did each of them use their femaleness to be better athletes and public figures at the same time. She certainly isn't the first "tomboy" (if she must be labeled that way) to go through this and she won't be the last.

I seriously would like to stress taking a look at these women as feminists as well as athletes. Try to look at the advancements women have and are making in the world of sports. For example, check out this article about baseball and women in it today - in professional baseball. Puberty does not mean the end and she needs reassurance that it doesn't mean the end for her. Yes, it is a fight, but check out this list of women's firsts in sports - everyone of them was up against nay-sayers that thought women weren't strong enough or focused enough, or (whatever) enough because they were women. Don't teach her to buy into it!

My Grandmother desperately wanted to play baseball and wasn't allowed to at all. Instead of a ball and bat for her tenth birthday (what she wanted) she got a doll. She tore its head off and used it as a ball and used the body for the bat so she could practice in secret. In fact, you might even take a look at history and see how far we've come in general - let alone sports. It used to be standard belief that men had mental advantages in terms of their workforce abilities and that was why women should be kept at home - bah!! Make sure she knows who Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth are (among others) and what they were up against (especially Sojourner Truth!). Yes, there are biological advantages for the boys in terms of musculature - so what! Maybe she is smarter and more driven - that matters too.

In regard to friends - she can still hang with the guys (I did) there is a lot less drama with them. While I wasn't passionate about sports, all my friends were guys (I think I had one girlfriend) and I can say from first experience that doesn't have to end either.

This is an exciting time for women in sports - get her excited about the prospects of being a part of it**! Maybe she'll make a little history of her own while making things even better for all the girls to come after her.

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  • Missing a little formatting at the end. – Tim May 18 '15 at 20:00
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I used to be a bit like her. I was one of the fastest runners in my class, good at soccer, I liked to play with boys, hated dresses, dolls, makeup... I agree with you, she's up for a tough truth: that boys will often be able to outstip her in sports due to difference in muscle power. I think it's good that you recognize this as an important thing. I certainly remember feeling that it's unfair.

You cannot of course change this, but you can use it as a life lesson about looking for personal stregths. Another potential lesson in there is how to derive pleasure from competing with yourself, i.e. just seeing that your own potential is developing, regardless of what others are doing.

It is also possible to start her on some sport that values skill over strength, perhaps some martial art?

Also, if she gets unhappy when her breasts start growing, I wouldnt force the gender issue much, but would instead insist how it's a sign that she's growing - getting more mature, which means she is also getting smarter, is able to be trusted with new things, soon to not need a babysitter anymore when at home, etc etc.

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  • Your martial art suggestion is a good one. – Ossum's Mom Dec 20 '13 at 15:15
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Why would becoming a woman mean that she can be any less athletic or outstanding? OK, boys will be getting physically stronger on average, that's nature. Challenge her to find new strengths rather than pure physical grunt.

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    Help her find other female role models to look up to (mentors in sports? mentors in other disciplines she likes, like math or computers?). She can be feminine and still kick a**. – Valkyrie Dec 18 '13 at 12:41
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I have two ideas for you.

First, surround yourselves with role models -- women athletes! Posters, newspaper and magazine articles, games and competitions posted on youtube, interviews on youtube. Go to see a variety of sports events that involve women. I live in a university town, and we can see women competing in every sport imaginable. I hope there is something similar within a reasonable distance from you.

Second, get her into some sports activities with other young women, where the level challenges her sufficiently. Perhaps this will only be possible in the summer. That's okay. She needs to have some experiences where she has the feeling that she has found a group of people who have the same basic approach to life that she does. That can give her the strength to get through the school year, looking forward to going back the following summer.

I imagine she's been competing with boys up till now because all-girls sports programs didn't challenge her enough. And I see your point, that when the boys' testosterone kicks in, she will no longer excel so easily compared to them. But as she gets older, more opportunities to compete against really good female athletes will present themselves, and she'll still be able to have satisfying experiences.

Take a look at http://www.wrestlegirl.com/gnews6176.htm I followed the progress of one of the girls profiled here, starting when she was about 10. A remarkable story.

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It seems that the roots of the problem (they are somewhat related by different) are:

  • She enjoys personal competitiveness against her male friends in sports (and worries she won't be competitive against the same people later)

    The solution here (aside from already-present in other answers "compete in women's league") may also be to

    1. More heavily participate in sports where sheer muscle mass matters less. Ping Pong (table tennis) is a quintessential example. Endurance swimming (the first - and only AFAIK - person to swim unassisted from Cuba to Miami was a 60 year old woman). Competitive shooting.

    2. Compete in a sport where leagues are determined by weight/size. A lower-sized woman would be less disadvantaged against a similarly sized/weighed boxer or wrestler, as opposed to running.

    3. Compete in a sport where she's unusually great. A woman is statistically less performant at some sports on average, but a specific woman with a specific talent is likely to outperform many average men in her talent-specific sport.

  • She enjoys the camaraderie that comes from sporting together

    That one is easier. Either her "friends" are real humans who'd still be her friends even if she's not as good as them (as opposed to because she enjoys the same passion for the same sporty things and works as hard as them). Or they aren't friends worth hanging out with, and it's better if she finds that out sooner than later, so she can get some real ones.

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First of all I would like to say, wow your daughter is really smart.

Every girl at her age feels this way. I can remember how awkward my girlfriend felt about puberty but she accepted it and she even told me that she is happy that she'll look more sexy. So my advice is that you should help her to find positives to puberty. It might not affect her sports because there lots of female footballers or basketballers. In fact, my girlfriend best friend played basketball from the age of 6 up to 16 and she can still beat my in a game. Most girls feel that they need to look as attractive as the models on television and it puts pressure on them.

To finish off I would tell you to think off how your daughter will benefit from puberty and then the negatives into advantages. You'll have better luck at this as you know your daughter better than me.

Good luck.

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