Boys Will Be Boys Because We Want Them To Be

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Kenny Bodanis cites four parental culprits that reinforce societal stereotypes and keep boys stuck in outdated notions of boyhood

Joanna Schroeder’s article on The Good Men Project, as well as Soraya Chemaly’s on Huffington Post, both do a great job of pointing out the problems, and even potential dangers, of dismissing boys’ destructive behaviour with the axiom “Boys will be boys.”

One difference between the two posts is with whom each writer finds the responsibility for the boys’ behaviour lies. Ms. Chemaly focuses on the parents:

“Not once did his parents talk to him about invading another person’s space and claiming for his own purposes something that was not his to claim. Respect for her and her work and words was not something he was learning.  How much of the boy’s behavior in coming years would be excused in these ways, be calibrated to meet these expectations and enforce the “rules” his parents kept repeating?

There was another boy who, similarly, decided to knock down her castle one day. When he did it his mother took him in hand, explained to him that it was not his to destroy, asked him how he thought my daughter felt after working so hard on her building and walked over with him so he could apologize. That probably wasn’t much fun for him, but he did not do it again.”

Ms. Schroeder hints that nature shares some of the blame:

“I have a degree in Women’s Studies, and I understand the ways in which we socialize our girls to be sweet and accommodating, while we teach boys to be physical and unyielding. But it wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I saw how often kids fulfill these expectations with minimal parental influence.”

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In my opinion, it is indisputable that both nature and nurture influence children’s behaviour. I do think children are born with innate characteristics, talents, and weaknesses. Any parent with more than one child – especially siblings of similar ages – will remark how different the children’s personalities are from one another.

I have two children; a son, 8-years-old, and a daughter, 6. He is more cerebral and analytical; she is more athletic and boisterous. While there is a healthy presence of bickering and play fighting between them, there are also strict rules in our house about using your hands in anger against another person, as well as consequences for name-calling and destruction of property. Most of our peers raise their children with similar guidelines. Society as a whole, however, still encourages the “Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls” mentality. These stereotypical philosophies, as well as the behaviours they foment, exist for many reasons:

  • Lack of Parental Intervention:

A theme unintentionally discovered through interviews with anti-bullying specialists, family therapists, and school teachers was parents’ unwillingness to say “no”, and to put into place consequences for their children’s misbehaviour. Each of these specialists point to a lack of discipline at home as a principal factor underlying a child’s poor conduct.

Experts’ unequivocal opinion of our generation of parents is: we don’t know how to say no. Teachers and school administrations are constantly challenged with “not my child” statements of defiance from parents; parents either don’t recognize their children’s misbehaviour, or lack the fortitude to put their child in the car and drive them home as a consequence to rude or destructive comportment.

Parents also give tacit approval for boorish behaviour by themselves being aggressive, either in the home or on the sidelines of the sports field.

  • Parents Reinforce Behaviour:

One only need look at themed birthday parties for young children to understand that, while the seeds for gender roles may be present at birth, they are certainly culturally reinforced. Boys parties will have pirate themes, or Star Wars themes; girls’ parties still focus on princesses and other more feminine mainstays.

Is there anything wrong with that? No. I also don’t believe it is necessarily our role to create a homogeneous, sexless society. However, when your son is looking for a sword or your daughter is waiting to be rescued, it’s important to understand some of the influences on that behaviour. Our generation is (outwardly, at least) espousing the philosophy of gender role elimination in the workplace. The seeds of confidence and future possibilities are learned from a very young age. The question is not whether it is wrong for girls to have princess parties, but whether we are also telling our daughters “Pirate parties are for boys” and telling our sons “Figure skating is for girls”. In refusing experiences to our children based on their gender, we are reinforcing a feeling of shame in them for having that interest in the first place.

  • Peer Pressure

The battle between parental influence and peer pressure on children is a monster. As much as we may instill fairness, open-mindedness, respect, and a sense of right from wrong in our children, each of those will be tested once they leave the front door.

Will they have the strength to say “no” to the beer or to the car keys?  Will they be fearless when defending a victim of bullying or harassment?

If nothing else, the internet has proven we are still largely a culture of road-ragers. We are still prepared to hide in anonymity while either criticizing risk-takers or being fearful of supporting them. It is a special child who will resist ugly adolescent temptations. That level of confidence and strength is drawn largely from parental support at home.

  • Us Versus Them

Here we are, in the blogosphere, having stimulating, high-brow (occasionally naval-gazing) intellectual discussions about parenting. My experience, while either sitting in the stands at the arena or the ball field, or watching parents and kids in the playground or at vacation spots is: we are the minority. To many parents, “if someone hits you, you hit back” or “I drove plenty after one or two beers, and I’m fine” are acceptable.

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So, what do we do with that? After all, from those parents’ perspective it is also ‘Us Versus Them.’ The answer is: we do the best we can, and we do it out loud.

As brave as we need our children to be, that example must be set by us. It is not easy to face a brutish dad and ask him to stop yelling at the team bench. It is not easy to look at a parent and say, “I’m sorry, but that behaviour is not acceptable in my house.” It’s not easy to look at your friend and say “Language like that is not acceptable in front of my children.”

Boys will always be boys. What kind of boys they are is up to us parents.

Unfortunately, most boys and girls are exactly the types of children society wants them to be.

—photo by Renato Ganoza/Flickr

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About Kenny Bodanis

Kenny Bodanis is the author of the parenting book "Men Get Pregnant, Too (despite never pushing a watermelon through a pigeonhole)" . He is a parenting columnist and blogger at www.MenGetPregnantToo.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google +

Comments

  1. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    This is one I like. My quick interpretation of the myth:

    In Wolfram von Eshenbach’s tale of Parzifal, one of the grail seekers in King Arthur’s court, a young man finds himself reared outside the company of men. His mother means well. Parzifal’s father has destroyed himself in a quest for adventure, fighting a war in Africa, taking up with the queen of the tropical city he successfully defends, fathering a child by her, leaving to return to Europe, there to bigamously marry Parzifal’s mother and father a second son. The adventure-father then consummates his lifelong dream to fight for the Baruch of Baghdad, and dies in the service of that magnate, but through treachery, not through battle.

    Parzifal’s mother intends to protect her son from the dangers of chivalry—of the world of men. Husbandless, she rears her son in an isolated forest cottage, far from cities, capitols, or courts. She fails to tell him his true name or lineage. When by chance Parzifal sees a group of knights riding by, however, he asks them from where they originate. When they reply that they are of King Arthur’s court, he resolves to go there and become a knight as well. His mother reluctantly allows him to journey toward Camelot, but dresses him in comical peasant garb, so as to sabotage his chances for knighthood.

    Not aware of the customs of either marriage or courtship, Parzifal steals a ring and a broach from a noble’s wife and departs to continue his journey, setting the knight off in pursuit of him. The noble promises to kill any other knight he encounters, pledging only to be satisfied at Parzifel’s violent death. The noble does manage to kill the knightly husband of Parzifal’s cousin, who then informs Parzifal of Parzifal’s true name and lineage.

    Parzifal then encounters the Red Knight, Ither, and kills him in a fair fight with a spear in order to obtain his armor. Now Parzifal is the Red Knight in outward appearance, but still lacks the social graces to be accepted at King Arthur’s court. When he makes his way there, he creates a stir due to his beautiful new suit of armor, but more so when his peasant rags and laughable social graces are revealed. His chances for knighthood are dashed.

    Parzifal meets Gurnemanz, an older man who begins instructing him on the ways of knighthood and the court. Gurnemanz tells Parzifal that he needs to listen more than talk, and to be chary of asking questions. Parzifal takes this advice to heart and begins recreating himself as a gentleman.

    His new persona backfires though when he journeys to the castle of the Fisher King, the guardian of the Holy Grail. Parzifal can redeem the Fisher King from infirmity and become guardian of the Grail, if only he will ask why everyone dwelling in the castle is afflicted. Polite to a fault now, though, he doesn’t.

    Later, Parzifal does ask the key question and does ultimately become keeper of the Grail. To do this, he needs more advice and mentoring. The story is a progressive tale of integration of energy and social skill, and of a good ending despite initial deficiencies.

    • Love the summary, Hank. Do you, would you recommend the best book version of the myth? I might want to read it to kids; if not them then for me.

      • Hank Vandenburgh says:

        Not sure, Duffer. Probably a direct translation of the Wolfram von Eschenbach version. I speak German, but I found the German version a little beyond my capabilities.

  2. Will Best says:

    A record number of boys are being medicated in order to thwart nature. In fact, bullying seems to have hit absolute sadistic levels since we started to criminalize being a boy.

    The question you have to ask yourself on the nurture side is why are you trying to tact into the wind when the entirety of history demonstrates that boyish boys become productive men. What is going on right now is a blind attempt to make better men and it is failing miserably. Women are now 60% of college entrants, labor force participation rates for men are now at levels not seen since the great depression, men are no longer employed in jobs that can support a household.

    The solution isn’t to double down on what didn’t work while raising the Millennials, its to go back to what did work.

    • Hi Will,

      Thanks for reading.
      What DID work?
      Statistically, bullying is as present among girls as it is boys. The difference is: boys bully physically, girls rely much more on online intimidation through social media; we have seen examples of suicide in young girls because of this pattern of behavior.
      Are boys naturally more rambunctious? Maybe. But that doesn’t excuse destructive or abusive behavior. Playfighting is one thing; behavior which is hurtful to other people’s bodies and property is another. It is the latter I refer to when I watch parents explain away their son’s behavior as “boys being boys”. Boys are also good at fixing things, how about getting him to pick up that truck he smashed and asking him to put it back together. It will be the first item on his “Honey-Do” list.

    • Steve Steveson says:

      I agree. Whilst saying “boys will be boys” cannot be an excuse for unacceptable antisocial behavior, we have to be careful not to continue the path of the past where so many well meaning people have said “We should treat them all the same” expecting boys to act like girls. This can be seen time and again in out teaching system where boys are expected to sit quietly, listen & take in information when this simply dose not work. Boys do need to run, scream, shout, play fight. They need to be able to make a mess, be exuberant, come home with ripped trousers and covered in mud. We have told them for too long “Sit. Keep quiet. Why can’t you be more like your sister? Stop being disruptive”.

      This is what “boys will be boys” is about. Saying boys will get muddy and will play fighting games and will from time to time settle arguments with rough and tumble. It is not excusing violence or theft or bullying. Just as girls settle arguments by ignoring one another and social punishments, but we should not use this as an excuse for bullying either.

      • Well said, Steve.

      • The whole notion of ‘boys will be boys’ certainly had its effect on my childhood. When I was in primary school I was the resident bad girl. I was always a precocious child, answering back and not knowing my place as a child (‘children should be seen and not heard’). Consequently I spent a lot of my education either sitting in the corner of the classroom or in front of the administrative building during lunchtimes where the whole school could see who was in trouble. To this day parents and former teachers greet me with ‘Ah mischievous Sophie. What shenanigans are you up to now.’ Thing is I was probably punished only half as much as a lot of the other boys in my class, but there was not as much shame for them because they were just being boys. As a girl, I should have known better and been like the rest of the girls in my class who were better behaved. It’s sad that boys and girls should have to experience sexism from such an early age from old-fashioned teachers and parents.

  3. How about instead of working towards boys being less boyish we work towards girls being more boyish?
    I find this entire premise distasteful.
    And remember to quote my dear departed Dad– “if parents had anything to do with it we’d be speaking with Grand-pop’s accent.
    Of course anti-bullying seminar speakers are going to blame parents- the school district is writing the check.
    And @Hank I’d go fishing with you anytime.

    • Hi J.A.,

      How are we expecting boys to be less boyish? Can boys not be boys without being physically intimidating and destructive?
      While you are free to disagree with experts in the field and dismiss a couple of decades of work, have a look at this website: http://daretocare.ca/ or any number of others, or read this post: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-good-life-guess-who-created-your-little-bully/ and at least please give them the respect they deserve by reading their research.

      • Equality is not laming the strong- it is strengthening the weak.
        And I’ve already read ” gues who crated….” Hence my observation about blaming parents…
        I’m not impressed by the author of that piece’s credentials- she makes a living by calling ” bully”
        While I’m not dismissing the experts- I will opine again that when you have a hammer every problem is a nail… How about we accept 500,000 years of human endeavor.
        Boys, by nature, change their environment and in the learning process some eggs get broken…

        • I think you have the wrong end of the stick there.

          http://www.futurity.org/society-culture/boys-will-be-boys-but-not-so-in-asia-2/

          • Your link is far more nuanced than you are letting on- in Asia teachers rated girls better than boys at self regulation (absolutely consistent with what Drew cited). In controlled settings (i.e. possibly not representative of the real world) boys performed equally well.

            Also, in Asia boys are valued more highly than girls. Whereas in the United States we have people writing articles about how toddler boys are budding rapists.

            Also, Asian cultures tend to hyper emphasize emotional control- i.e. the “stuffing” down of emotions that certain people love to use to denigrate masculinity.

            In this country men and boys are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

      • @Kenny-
        I apologize– thought that Lisa Dixon-Wells, bullying prevention expert, wrote “guess who…”
        http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-good-life-guess-who-created-your-little-bully/
        I have no opinion on your credentials.

    • the problem is our definition of “boyish” and “girlish”. By using the excuse boys will be boys towards destructive, violent, or nasty behavior, we define boyish behavior as something destructive, violent, and nasty. While girlish behavior is angelic and better. And as a man, I feel insulted hearing how my natural “boyish” behavior are something violent, nasty, and worse than “girlish” behavior. Although I know many men use this term as an excuse, somehow I get the feeling many women use this term to make them feel better as a gender. That’s why I dislike the boys will be boys , because its an insult to our gender.

    • If you’re going fishing I’ll chip in for gas and provide the post trip beer/libation of choice. This blank slate stuff borders on the ridiculous. A few exceptions don’t change or disprove central tendancy.

      Forgive me if I don’t accept Soraya Chemaly as any sort of authority on men. Her article is a prime example of EXACTLY what is wrong with the dicourse on men. It’s a shame it wasnt ignored. The boy could have had any number of behavioral problems that his parents didn’t want to discuss with Ms. Chemaly so they made up an excuse. They could have been incredibly distracted by something happening in their lives and, as a result, not have intervened actively. They may parent their daughter the exact same way. But to go from block towers to rape is irresponsible. She’s got one tool in her belt and whacks everything with it.

      This trend of insinuating that toddler boys are budding rapists is just plain nasty and disturbing.
      I saw a toddler girl act like a complete nightmare at the chick fila recently. Her parents indulged the tantrum. I could have created some grand scenario about how “women are soooo entitled.” BUT I didn’t and I think anyone who would is a fairly horrible person.

      Lets work to ensure the exceptions are accepted for who they are but lets not throw out “500000 years of human endeavor” in some attempt to bend the world to fit an ideology.

      - A father to 2 sons, 1 daughter and a volunteer / coach of hundreds.

  4. I am always so careful to avoid the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude and figure of speech. Boys can be amazing human beings and using that saying to laugh off or justify bad behaviour is dishonouring our boys (and men). While there are certain gender characteristics that seem ‘typical’ of boys, there is no room for bad behaviour or aggressive behaviour in either genders. I don’t want my son to grow up thinking he has to be a stereotype of a male. I want him to know that his male-ness is however he wants to define it and as a parent I hope that he will just be a good person – whatever his gender or sexuality etc.

    • Will Best says:

      No room for aggressive behavior? So no soldiers, no police, no athletes. There is aggressive behavior (albeit not physical) in law, sales, finance and management and dozens of other fields.

      Its not about no aggressive behavior, its about channeling it productively or at least harmlessly. The goal isn’t to tell your boys stop doing A, B, C, … until eventually you are working your way through criminal behavior about the time they stop listening to you, its to help them find an outlet for their energy that satisfies their need to be productive (and being productive is a near universal need in men).

  5. Amen, Kez.

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