My 3-year-old grandson already is well aware of at least some of the differences between men and women. He told me recently while we were walking to a picnic that it would be perfectly acceptable for him to take his shirt off. I, however, had better keep mine on.
There is, of course, a lot more for him — and all of us — to learn about gender differences.
That was my topic at a recent weekend-long retreat for 65 motivated couples sponsored by You&Me.WE, a program of Family Resources Inc. of Pinellas County.
Some couples were just looking for a relationship tuneup. Others were trying to save troubled marriages.
My colleague and I tried to kick off the session with some role-playing. We asked volunteers to pretend they were part of an alien invasion, and had to train men to fit into society on Planet Earth as women — and women to fit in as men. This is an exercise based on a program developed by researchers at the University of Kentucky a few years back, one that I've found to be eye-opening.
Our courageous volunteers took turns onstage, providing suggestions and tips that surprised, amused and sometimes even saddened us.
Women charged with training men to fit in as women focused mainly on appearances. Check yourself in the mirror – often; smile a lot, even if you don't feel like smiling; walk with a bit of a wiggle; and wear makeup even if you are just running out for a quick errand.
I've heard this emphasis on looks every time I've led this exercise, particularly among younger women. In contrast, the men don't seem to mention looks much at all to the women when it is their turn to train them to fit in as men.
The only physical aspect the guys mentioned was posture, going as far as showing the women how to sit in a more masculine position. I must admit, if I saw a man checking himself in a handheld compact while seated in a restaurant, I'd assume he had something stuck in his eye or between his teeth.
The male volunteers instructed women that as men, they need to ask the women in their lives lots of questions and brace themselves for more information than they really wanted.
That sounds right, based on the fact that women tend to speak two to three times more than men. Research has found that the average man speaks about 7,000 words a day while the average woman speaks close to 21,000.
"When you ask us what is on our minds and we say 'Nothing,' we really mean 'Nothing,' one young man said to general laughter and nods of recognition.
I heard something different from an older man last year when I led this exercise for another group.
He told the women he was training that "they should prepare to be very lonely on Planet Earth as men but then hide that fact from almost everyone."
No one laughed, and no one disagreed with him.
Gender differences can cause a significant amount of stress and conflict between men and women. Women often interpret a man's lack of response or attention as a lack of caring. In reality, men simply aren't as adept as women at reading facial cues or tone intonations. There are real differences in male and female brains that account for this.
In my house, I can usually count on my daughters to read me a lot faster than my husband or son will. Upset one day over something, I walked by both my son and my husband with a grim look on my face. Neither of them commented or even seemed to notice my mood.
A few minutes later my younger daughter walked into the kitchen and knew something was wrong even though I was standing at the sink, with my back toward her. The point here is not that she cares more or that neither of the men in my life care enough. She is just neurologically wired to read the cues I was exhibiting.
The trick here is to be careful of the story you tell yourself about these differences. They are not better or worse; they are just differences. Ultimately, that story can make or break a relationship.
And fortunately, men and women are equipped equally as well to observe their stories and open them up for honest dismantling.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (727) 418-7882.