Dr. Elaine Heffner: Venus and Mars
According to the old nursery rhyme, little boys are made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, while little girls are sugar and spice and everything nice. The more contemporary adult version is that women are from Venus and men are from Mars. Although the references have changed, the message is the same, boys and girls, men and women are different.
The trouble is, we have been so busy trying to promote equality, and to wipe out sexist differences, that we have forgotten about differences between the sexes. Sugar and spice are often easier to deal with that frogs and snails, so little girls tend to set the standard for behavior that little boys are then expected to live up to. They can’t. It takes so much energy for any young child to sit still, but differences in development make it easier for girls than for boys.
Differences in aggression between boys and girls have been noted in all cultures. Boys tend to be more active, competitive and dominant. In groups, they stimulate one another to increased activity and pretend fighting. But when boys have difficulty managing their bodies -- when they are acting like boys -- they are often considered a discipline problem. This is especially true in the classroom, where girls are generally more compliant and at least appear to be more accepting of the teacher’s directions.
Although it is not a good idea to generalize, after observing many classrooms over many years, it is striking to see the way boy/girl balance in a class can affect the character of the classroom. Recently, I observed a class of 2-year-old’s and was astonished at the high level of behavior involving sharing, turn-taking and consideration of others. While noting this, I became aware that unusual as it was, the class was made up entirely of girls. That is not to say that the presence of boys does not offer a different spark that can make life interesting. Frogs and snails can mix well with sugar and spice at times.
Gender differences can play out with parents as well as their children. When parents discuss their children’s behavior, they often react differently to the behavior that concerns them. For example, both parents may express concern about a child “not listening.” However, what it is the child is not listening to may differ for each parent. What bothers one parent may not seem that important to the other.
The gender difference that often emerges is that of mothers feeling fathers are too harsh in their expectations and fathers feeling mothers are too soft. The difference expressed is about the way the behavior is responded to more than about the behavior itself. The problem coming from this is each parent becoming more invested in his or her approach, meaning that the child does not receive a unified message about his or her behavior.
Parents often ask which approach is the correct one, but the answer to that is neither. It is not a question of one being right and the other wrong. Even when their views diverge, the ability to agree on a common approach will be the one most successful in reaching their goal and most helpful to their child. Typically, there are gender differences in the way fathers and mothers approach many issues with children, and one is not better than the other.
In the business and political world, the word is that women bring an ability to compromise and to work with others. Parents and children benefit from gender differences at home as well as in the classroom.
-- Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.