December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // 6IAW2

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Mars and Venus in Extension Classes: Overcoming the Challenge of Gender Differences in Parenting Education

Extension educators responsible for strengthening families through parenting education. To be effective, they must work to bridge gender differences to include and encourage fathers' participation. Adapting examples from John Gray's popular text, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, the author offers practical applications for female educators working to build fatherhood groups and deliver parenting education across gender lines.

Marilou Rochford
Family and Consumer Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County
Cape May Court House, New Jersey
Internet address:

Most Extension parenting education programs are missing something significant: fathers as participants. Recent studies indicate that active father involvement is necessary for positive impact on a growing child. Children with either emotionally- absent or physically-absent fathers suffer the loss of economic resources, increased risk for drug and alcohol abuse, crime, teen pregnancy, and problems in school. In its report, Survey on Child Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics (1993) claims that fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school.

These examples and other research on the value of fathers in children's lives make it critical to get fathers involved. One way to encourage that involvement is through parenting education. Within Rutgers Cooperative Extension, parenting education is a major component for strengthening families in New Jersey. However, including more fathers in parenting education presented the challenge of bridging the gender gap and understanding varying communication styles between the men and women. As John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, points out: "You see the Martian and Venusian languages had the same words, but the way they were used gave different meanings. Their expressions were similar, but they had different connotations or emotional emphasis. Misinterpreting each other was very easy." (Gray, 1992, p. 59)

Challenge #1 Venusians as Educators

Throughout the Rutgers Cooperative Extension system, family and consumer science educator positions are held by women. While that has not been a barrier for other types of human development programming, it proved to be a challenge for developing a fatherhood program. Parenting education programs conducted and marketed along traditional channels, such as publishing in newsletters, promoting in schools, pediatrician's offices, for example, drew mothers as participants 90% of the time.

A ten-question survey was developed and distributed to fathers in the Cape May County area soliciting feedback on their preferred methods of receiving information, their willingness to participate in fatherhood programs, their preparation for fatherhood, and their fatherhood role models. More than 200 men responded to the survey. The information derived from this survey was the basis for creating an outreach and education program specifically for fathers.

Challenge #2 - Martians as Participants

A key factor in reaching fathers involved paying attention to the differences that set fathers apart. Gray (1992) offers that men feel important when they receive trust, acceptance, appreciation, admiration, approval and encouragement. Gray's recommendations, combined with indications from the survey, formed the ground work for communications used to build a cohesive core group of fathers. A family and consumer sciences educator adapted Gray's recommendations and utilized them to recruit and train a core group of 15 motivated fathers who meet regularly. An example of the steps the educator utilized to create a Fatherhood Task Force using Gray's key points is as follows:

  1. Draw from personal contacts with volunteer organizations, teachers, coaches, community leaders, among others, to identify willing fathers. Let them know that they have been selected because they take their role as a father seriously. Clearly ask for their help.

  2. Create an atmosphere of trust by building one-on-one relationships with these fathers through mail, phone and personal conversations. Be open and receptive to their suggestions.

  3. Focus the parenting education topics on the bottom line - making life better for children. Accept fathers at face value and avoid making them feel like they need "fixing."

  4. Appreciate fathers ideas and listen to their concerns. Ask them to provide solutions.

  5. Show admiration for fathers' efforts in joining the core group. Acknowledge their value as role models and invite them to reach out 'father to father' to involve others.

  6. Show approval by recognizing the good reasons behind their participation.

  7. Express confidence in the abilities and character of these men and encourage them to be the best fathers they can be.

Upon working with the core group in the Fatherhood Task Force and reviewing survey results, it was evident that even though fathers received little or no training for their role, they had great interest in improving their children's lives by becoming more involved. Careful application of the above steps has improved communication across gender lines and has contributed to the ongoing success of Rutgers Cooperative Extension's fatherhood program, which has been active for more than six months.

The Task Force has participated in more than 24 hours of parenting education and has helped to provide information to more than 500 fathers within the community. In addition, the program has encouraged participation in father/child activities sponsored by Extension and supported by a grant from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Massachusetts Avenue Building Fund. The activities, called "Me and My Dad," have been successful, drawing capacity attendance and extensive local media coverage.

Conclusion -- Aligning the Planets

To deliver effective parenting education, Extension educators must invest time in understanding the "Mars and Venus" aspects of gender differences, with respect to learning and communication styles. Involving fathers must be a goal for all Extension educators working to strengthen families. Including fathers on their terms is the only way to ensure their participation. Active involvement by both parents is essential in caring for and raising healthy children. By working to include more fathers, Extension educators will open up new opportunities in parenting education which ultimately benefit the children.


Gray, J. (1992) Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. New York: Harper Collins Publisher.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics. (1993) Survey on child health: Washington D.C.