Now, in our house, we also teach boys not to hit girls. My wife used to challenge that - You shouldn't hit anyone, she said - but the boys, who cheerfully tackled, jammed, and boxed each other like a Black Friday crowd waiting for Best Buys to open, agreed to honor the No-Tackle-Maria rule in street-ball games.
My daughter didn't complain. She was delighted to have repeated opportunities to tackle her brothers without having to worry too much about getting flattened by all the bigger kids. I told her it was because she was smallest. "Whatever," she said cheerfully.
And then one day in the autumn of her third grade, Mr. Budzynski came up to me at a Scout pancake breakfast and shed light where I hadn't expected.
"You weren't at the third-grade students vs. parents football game," he told me.
"I'm off this year," I told him. "Girls don't play that game."
"Some girls do," he told me. "Like a certain girl with a lot of older brothers."
"She did what?"
"Your daughter got a group of her friends to come in the game with her this year."
I asked the Coed Sports Dad Question: "Did the boys pass to them?"
"They did not."
"And what did the girls do?"
"This same girl, with the older brothers, pulled the other girls aside and showed them how to block."
He made two fists, faced the thumbs in, thumped them on his chest, elbows out.
"And did the girls block?"
"On the next play, led by your daughter, they ran over the boy with the ball. The dads had to carry him off the field."
My heart leaped. My daughter, the bruiser! I asked the Marginally Important Father Question:
"Why was I not informed?"
"She's embarrassed. She didn't like that she hurt someone."
I went home and told her brothers. Typical boy reaction: High fives all around. Cheers!
I told my daughter: "I hear you taught the girls to block, and you ran out and flattened the receiver."
She looked at me. Ran up to her room. Shut the door.
Not a boy reaction.
It occurred to me at this point that, unless I acted carefully, I was liable to end up, in about 20 years, with a grad student daughter writing a dissertation on "Gender Repression In Youth Sports: A First-Person Case Study." So I knew what I had to do.
I waited a week. And told my daughter, like this:
"In Catholic Youth sports, some leagues are single-sex, some are coed.
"You play on a coed soccer team. Your brother Nick played on a coed soccer team up through eighth grade. They had three girls starting, and they won the league.
"Your brothers played on coed basketball teams up until grade five. Then they all went single-sex.
"Now, you know there aren't any girls on their football teams. But I've heard some teams in some leagues do make room.
"If you want me to talk to the coaches. . . . "
My daughter fixed me with The Look - that penetrating, dark-eyed, nail-me-to-the-wall look.
"Dad," she said, accenting every syllable, "I am playing soccer this fall."
Yes, said my heart, thump-thump.
"Well, if you're sure," I told her. I suppressed the smile. I nodded.
I backed out of her room - and went downstairs to cook dinner.
Joseph N. DiStefano writes a business column for The Inquirer and the PhillyDeals page at Philly.com. Contact him at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com.