The Gorillas in Our Midst

I was at the zoo recently where I witnessed a scenario that made me both frustrated and empathetic towards men. (Note – this is not going to be a rant, it’s about science.)

As my kids and I were exiting the gorilla habitat we walked past a dad watching his toddling child. The mother was sitting about 15 feet away. She looked like an exhausted mom who desperately needed a moment to herself.

She occasionally glanced over, but it was clear that, by mutual agreement, dad was in charge. Mom was taking a breather from her wiggling kid, who stood banging his hands against the big glass wall.

As the little one got wilder and wilder, every mom in the zoo could see exactly what was going to happen next: the toddler slipped off the bench, tumbling to the ground below. Before Dad even realized his kid was down, Mom sprinted over, scooped up the kid and gave the father the evil eye.

She probably would have marched herself and the baby right out of that zoo – but the gorillas aren’t allowed leave their cage.

That’s right, this little male/female scenario didn’t involve the humans watching from outside the glass – it was the gorillas within. It proved once again, male and females are just different.

In “The Female Animal” (Oxford University Press, 1985) author Irene Elia observed that when a mother and father monkey are sitting together and the baby monkey cries, the father won’t react. He acts as though he can’t even hear the baby. But if the mother isn’t around and the baby cries, he will get up and attend to the infant.

I’m sure the ape moms find this annoying, as do their human counterparts.

I’m no Jane Goodall, but I think I can translate what the Mama Gorilla I observed was saying with all of her grunts, snorts and dirty looks:

“The one time I ask you to watch your baby so I can get a break and you don’t even notice when he falls off a ledge. I manage to carry him around all day every day while I dig for grubs for your dinner and you can’t even watch him for five minutes.

“I could hear him crying from halfway across the compound, and you’re sitting there staring at that stupid glass like you haven’t heard a thing. I swear, you care more about watching those silly humans than you do your own kids. I’m beginning to wonder if you’re trying to do a bad job just so I won’t ask you again.”

A scientist friend of mine once told me that organisms don’t change until outside pressure forces them to. Any man will tell you, there’s plenty of pressure on them to change, but the evolution of a species doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like we sprang from the swamps and started walking erect just because somebody’s mother thought it was a good idea.

Evolution takes time, and when you compare most men’s parenting skills to those of their fathers, they’ve made a bigger jump forward than a whale that’s learned to fly.

Males (apes and humans) don’t consciously turn off their parenting eyes and ears when a woman shows up. Give them credit for figuring out how to turn them on when she leaves.

If the mother gorilla had taken a real break and gone out for banana daiquiris with her girlfriends, Dad would have known he was solo man in charge and risen to the occasion.

Left to their own devices, most men can blaze a decent trail through the parenting forest –as long as some woman doesn’t make the mistake of hovering around trying to give them directions.

(c) Lisa Earle McLeod

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces.

She the author of The Triangle of Truth, which the Washington Post named as a “Top Five Book for Leaders.”

She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches.

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Copyright 2012 Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.