Parenting Differences Between Men and Women

This week we have our first blog post from the blog series based on Owen Connolly’s book for fathers, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: From Father to Dad”. The book is based on Owen’s work as a family therapist and his understanding of how we humans are designed, and the mechanisms that we employ to help us survive. In the first section of the book, Owen looks at the differences in the ways that men and women parent their children. Let’s jump right in with the first question addressed in the book.

IN YOUR OPINION, ARE THERE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN AND HOW DO THEY AFFECT THE WAY WE PARENT?

parenting differences men women

Men and women are different by design. Women are designed to be more focused on security, while men are, in general, more focused on action. As an example of this difference, let us consider a couple that are about to go away on holiday. The man is standing at the door next to his partner, and, being linear or “single-object focused” in his thinking, he’s anxious to get in the car and get on the road. He’s focused on the journey and nothing else. The woman, on the other hand, is better at multi-tasking due to being lateral or “multi-object focused” in her thought processes, and she’s thinking about a whole myriad of things. She might ask her partner if he wouldn’t mind getting something from the kitchen. He’s a bit confused, and doesn’t understand why he should get it instead of her. He sees her standing at the door and he doesn’t realise she’s actually doing many different jobs in her head – checking that all the lights are set on timers and that the water’s turned off and that the post is taken care of. She’s actually working and the man doesn’t realise that, because she’s multi-object focused and he’s single-object focused at that time. And that can cause problems between them, because they don’t realise that their mindsets are different. She’s thinking, “What if I don’t turn that off? What happens if I don’t inform the postman? Etc.” She, as a woman, has a need for security and an insecure feeling is prompting this whole investigative process. And that’s an essential part of her make-up because she’s always looking for the strongest branch on which to build her nest, and she’s always going to make sure that her children and home are safe. She’s much more conscious of that than most men would be. On the other hand, the man is thinking about the travel arrangements, such as the time of departure and the time of arrival, and these times are sacred to most men. This design in a man is, of course, a very good thing – it’s part of men’s pioneering excitement over getting to new territory, and working out the journey is an essential part of his internal map-making and decision-making processes.

Another big area of difference between men and women is that, in general, men tend to be more task-focused, so that when a woman speaks to a man about her feelings or emotions, he’s at a disadvantage because he’s thinking “What does she want me to do?” or “How can I solve this problem?” But she only wants to be heard and understood. Children are bit like that, too, so it’s important that when a father is listening to his wife or young children, he actually listens to the feelings that are being expressed and doesn’t rush to provide answers or advice. After he’s examined their feelings and really heard what they’re saying and sympathised and empathised and assured them that he understands, then – maybe! – he can give advice, acting out his manly way.

A third area of difference is decision-making. The design in the man usually pushes him more towards leadership and “getting things done” and to focus on the fact rather than the feeling. As a result, his decision-making process is usually much faster and less emotionally governed. The friction comes about when the emotional content of the conversation between a man and a woman is not heard and acknowledged, as he rushes to make decisions. Men shouldn’t be ashamed of this ability to make tough decisions quickly. Since the beginning of time, man’s role as protector has meant that he must possess the ability to act very quickly and to make decisions without emotion. When a man asks for something to be done, he often has an expectation that it should be done right away without question, because, to the person he is protecting, it could mean the difference between life and death. This old survival mechanism often manifests itself today when a father asks his child to carry out some chore in the home. Dad is less tolerant than Mom when the task is not done right away.

Another area of difference is how men and women mind the children. The multi-tasking side of the woman can make the children feel that Mam is not listening. She’s not giving eye contact as she does a million and one jobs, and it’s quite common for children to want eye contact in order to believe that there is some level of communication between them and their parent. If a woman is multi-tasking, she can be doing many tasks and still be listening – she can be painting the house or ironing the clothes or preparing the family accounts and still be hearing what the children are saying. She needs to either help them understand that she hears through empathetic listening (repeating what they’re saying back to them) or, if necessary, take the time to make eye contact. By contrast, many times when the father takes over the parenting role, the children can feel like prisoners, because when the father wants to do anything, he insists that the children sit still and stay where they are till he gets back. And that isn’t that the way a mother would typically treat a child. Her ability to hear what’s going on around the house and still focus on a task gives her the freedom to let the children move about and do their own thing. She has a sense of their presence around her and can cope with them being out of sight, whereas the man is unlikely to be able to deal with the out-of-sight child. He needs to know where that child is and that he or she is not going to move till he gets back. All this becomes evident when you see the men caring for their children on a Saturday afternoon in a park. “Don’t move – stay on this bench – I want you to be there when I get back.” A man does this because his valuable design as protector tells him that if the children are out of his sight, they may be unsafe. But a father must realise when his children are starting to feel trapped and learn to be more relaxed as they move around. As men and women, there are many behaviours which we have to learn in order to overcome the survival-instinct messages which our feelings send to us. We have to ignore these feelings and learn these more moderate behaviours in order to accommodate the needs of the present day. (For example, without these learned behaviours, our innate emotional response would have us assault our neighbour if we found him or her threatening!)

Although men in general are more single-focused when minding the children, they are not nearly as overly concerned for the safety of their playing children as a mother would be. A man is much more likely to allow his children to engage in “dangerous play,” while  an over-anxious mother lets her cautious desire for security and her desire to see her children safe turn her into a script-writer always imagining the worst-case-scenario. If the child climbs a tree, as children will do, her immediate response is “Come down from there – you’re going to fall.” She sees her child in hospital when he’s up in that tree, and therefore she immediately tries to prevent that child from experiencing that climbing. There’s research that suggests that if the child is not informed that they may fall, they are much less likely to fall. If they are warned that they might fall, they are statistically more likely to do so! It is a case of the over-anxious mother instilling insecurity in the child. And the fall will result in reinforcing the woman’s sense of the danger that might befall the child in future. It will make her (and perhaps the child) even more cautious! A father, by contrast, is more likely to let the child take risks.

Regarding our development and design as men and women, the man’s voice is very important for his role as protector. A man’s deep voice carries (it has distance), whereas the sharp, high voice of a female doesn’t carry (it’s localised). In ancient times, the man’s deep, booming voice was a big advantage to him as he occupied an overseeing position –in other words, guardianship – over those in his charge. He’d keep an eye out for danger, perhaps from a high point. The conversation that women had among themselves – in that localised voicing – wouldn’t carry, and that was a very good thing because it served to protect them from outsiders listening who meant harm. If there was danger, the high-pitched scream was (and is) very effective at alerting a man. The booming sound of the male’s voice, was (and is) very effective at warning off enemies.

Sadly, what you see happening in the world today is that there are men (albeit a minority), who, instead of standing at the door looking out and protecting their families and using their position to speak out, are instead standing with their backs to the door and speaking in and using their voices and strength to abuse rather than protect the household. It’s very sad to reflect on this, because when this happens, a man is actually going against his very nature. You see little boys instinctively protecting their mothers when there is conflict between mum and dad. That can have long-term bad effects on the relationship between father and son, because it’s a premature acting-out of his defensive role, but it is evidence of the protecting role that’s in-born in men.

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