Gender Development Two Cultures Theory

Whereas peer relations researchers have been inconsistent at best in examining the role of gender, gender development scholars have proposed an elegant theoretical framework that could fruitfully guide research in this area, called Two Cultures or Two Worlds Theory (see Maccoby, 1998 for a comprehensive presentation of the theory, and Underwood, 2003, for a discussion of how this framework could inform research on children's peer relations). The most fundamental claim of Two Cultures Theory is " . . . the distinctive play styles of the two sexes manifest themselves in distinctive cultures that develop within girls' and boys' groups as the children grow older" (Maccoby, 1998, p. 78). Two Cultures Theory logically begins with the striking phenomenon of gender segregation, that girls and boys strongly prefer to interact with same-gender partners beginning in the third year of life (Serbin, Moller, Gulko, Powlishta, & Colbourne, 1994), and continuing until at least preadolescence (Gottman & Mettetal, 1986; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1987).

According to Two Cultures Theory, girls' and boys' groups differ on several dimensions: play styles and activity preferences, discourse, friendships, and the size and power of peer groups (Maccoby, 1998). Briefly, girls prefer activities involving turn-taking and cooperation, whereas boys engage in more competitive activities (Crombie & Desjardins, 1993). Although boys and girls' conversational styles are similar in many respects, girls are more likely than boys are to accede to others' wishes to avoid conflicts (Miller, Danaher, & Forbes, 1986), and boys are more likely than girls are to urge each other to take risks and to discuss risqué or antisocial topics (Thorne & Luria, 1986). Although Two Cultures theorists characterize girls' friendships as more intimate and exclusive than boys' are (Maccoby, 1998), peer relations evidence suggests that gender differences may be more complex and that social context may be a powerful determinate of whether boys and girls engage in intimate exchanges (Zarbatany, McDougal, & Hymel, 2000). Two Cultures Theory proposes that girls' social groups are smaller in size than boys' groups are and this may be the case for younger children, but evidence is more mixed for older children and girls' and boys' social networks appear to be similar in size in the middle childhood years (Bagwell, Coie, Terry, & Lochman, 2000; Cairns & Cairns, 1994).

Although there is some discrepancy in the details between the Two Cultures characterization of girls' and boys' peer groups and the findings of peer relations researchers (Underwood, 2003), this may be due to a focus on different age groups and to the fact the peer relations researchers have rarely been guided by Two Cultures Theory. In the remainder of this chapter, we will carefully consider gender differences and how Two Cultures Theory might inform work on peer relations during middle childhood.


Developmental psychologists have focused on three aspects of children's peer relationships: friendships, social networks, and levels of social acceptance within the larger peer group. Friendship and peer social status seem to contribute to psychological adjustment in distinct ways (Parker & Asher, 1993). Because each of these relationship contexts demands different skills in emotion regulation, each will be considered separately here.

Friendships, Emotions, and Gender

For children to maintain close friendships, they have to be able to have fun getting excited together, know when to calm down, and know how to resolve disputes when they arise (Gottman & Mettetal, 1986). Little research has explicitly focused on emotion regulation processes between friends, but the literatures on children's expectations of friends and on conflict resolution are closely related.

Overall, research on friendships suggests that children expect to experience positive affect with peers, and to receive emotional support from friends when needed. In the middle childhood years, children report that same-sex friends provide them with more companionship and intimacy than parents, siblings, or teachers (Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1992). In a diary study, children reported expecting that peers would provide a sense of sociability and belonging, concern for achievements and self-enhancement, and opportunities for learning (Zarbatany, Hartmann, & Rankin, 1990). When interacting with close friends, children expect inclusion and acceptance in noncompetitive activities, and support for self-evaluation in competitive contexts (Zarbatany, Ghesquierre, & Mohr, 1992). When asked to describe upsetting events, preadolescents often mention social situations, but report feeling better after talking with friends (Denton & Zarbatany, 1996). Interestingly, in this age range, friends seem to help each other cope with distress by distraction; Denton and Zarbatany found that preadolescents reported feeling better after receiving distracting social support from friends.

Although friends clearly expect and enjoy much positive interaction together, friends' interests inevitably collide and conflicts arise. A rich body of previous research has explored conflicts between friends and peers (see Laursen, et al., 1996, for a thoughtful review). Disagreements between friends may have both positive and negative functions; disputes can prompt children to make advances in their thinking, but disputes can also disrupt relationships and generate negative affect (Aboud, 1989). In a study of children's responses to discrepancies between their ratings of emotion judgments and the judgments of a friend, children tended to change their appraisals more when these were discrepant with the appraisals of a close friend than a "lukewarm" friend (Aboud, 1989).

Several previous investigations demonstrate that conflicts between friends are different than conflicts between children who are less closely affiliated. In one study, third- and fourth-grade friends and nonfriends were observed playing a board game designed to generate conflict, in a "closed field situation" (meaning that the children had little choice about what or with whom to play, Hartup, French, Laursen, Johnston, & Ogawa, 1993). Friends engaged in more conflicts than nonfriends (even when the total amount of interaction was statistically taken into account), and their disagreements lasted longer and tended to be less mild and polite than those between nonfriends. Other research suggests that with close friends, children respond more strongly to conflicts and also take care to protect the future of the relationship. In responding to hypothetical vignettes about anger with close friends and classmates, pre- and young adolescent children reported that with friends, they would feel a stronger sense of violation as a result of provocation, experience more complex emotions (anger and sadness, for example), be more likely to take partial responsibility for the dispute, and engage in more direct strategies to try to restore the relationship (Whitesell & Harter, 1996). Overall, research on conflict suggests that close friends resolve disagreements in ways that preserve the stability of the relationship, whereas nonfriends might resort to more hostile strategies in order to prevail in a particular dispute (Laursen et al., 1996).

Very few of these studies have found strong and consistent gender differences in how friends resolve conflicts during the age range of middle childhood. Although girls and boys cope with conflicts and provocation in largely similar ways, some evidence suggests that girls may be more distressed when angered by peers (Whitesell & Harter, 1996), and that girls' anger focuses more on social concerns (Murphy & Eisenberg, 1996).

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