Violence In The Everyday Lives Of Our Boys


Does being a guy mean that you have to fight? 

“Mom, I’ve decided I need a pocket knife. And a pellet gun.”

My nine year-old had been begging us for a pocketknife for years. This seemed like a dangerous idea to his dad and me, even though his main interests had previously been carving his name in trees and cutting rope. But this time he seemed very concerned. I stopped what I was doing and sat down across from him.

“Honey, why do you think you need a weapon?”

“To protect myself and you guys, if someone tries to hurt us.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt us, buddy,” I said without thinking. Of course I didn’t know that, but the answer was reflexive. As a parent, you don’t want your kids to be afraid, even if the world is sometimes scary. We have a job to protect them – not just from harm, but also from unnecessary worry.

But at that moment it occurred to me that this boy’s world was expanding. He was starting to see outside of our little family bubble, into the world of men. And he wanted to feel capable of taking care of himself in a way that I’d never even considered.

While every child is different, and there are no rules about how all boys think or feel, it does seem as though boys in our society have an acute understanding of violence. Starting young, they want to know what to do about it and what will happen if they have to fight.

Do boys ever really feel safe?

The ways we’ve been failing our boys in regards to violence in their everyday lives became obvious after I read a Young Adult novel called Wise Young Fool. Although the book is primarily a coming-of-age story about a teenager who wants to play in a rock band, it wasn’t the music or the teen angst that stood out to me.

“Life as a guy means knowing someone is probably about to beat you up or take your stuff.”

The main character, Richie, is aware of the threat of violence in nearly every social situation – and it pretty much never ends. At school there’s a bully who lives to torment Richie and his friend. Guys in rival bands hate him and destroy his stuff. Parties, with booze and tempers and hot girls are even worse. Everywhere he goes, Richie is aware of the guys who simply don’t like the look of him. When Richie lands in juvenile detention, you can imagine how much the presence of violence in his life increases.

After finishing the book, I asked my husband if the degree to which Richie thought about fighting was realistic. “Of course,” he said. “Life as a guy means knowing someone is probably about to beat you up or take your stuff.”

As a teenage girl, I definitely felt a daily threat of violence, but it was almost always sexual violence. Snapped bras, breasts “accidentally” groped, and butts being grabbed were an accepted part of daily life, as much as we hated it or felt violated.

My constant vigilance for this type of harassment was legitimate. However my own internal focus kept me, as a teen and even as a mother, from seeing the daily threats that boys face in those same years.

Often it’s not until we step away from the culture of youth and look in as parents that we start to see how scary it can be to be a teenager.

Yes, your son is probably dealing with violence in his life

We have to be clear here that there is a huge variance of experiences relating to violence. In no way could anybody write about what violence is like and have it engender the experiences of all kids. Certainly there are kids who are much more at risk than others, and there are some for whom violence is not much more than a passing thought.

Jamie Utt, a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator, explains:

“You start with a baseline reality of the threat of daily violence, but when you compound LGBT violence or racialized violence, or the violence that’s more common in low income communities, the threat of violence young men face is compounded.”

What I think really surprised me, however, was the level of violence in the lives of boys whom we assume have no real problems: boys in schools we consider to be good, boys with good parents, boys who have friends and hobbies and no criminal records.

I talked to Sean Beaudoin, author of Wise Young Fool, about the role of violence in his book, and he explained that he had set out to write about three things: What it was like to be in a band, what it was like to be incarcerated, and the effects of drunk driving.

“The fighting stuff, that had to be in there because it was just part of growing up,” he told me. “There was always the sense that I could be punched, shoved or pushed into lockers. That was just normal.”

“There was always the sense that I could be punched, shoved or pushed into lockers. That was just normal.”

Sean says there are always going to be big guys who can mess you up. At some point you’re probably going to have to choose between fighting them—knowing that if you don’t, you’ll lose respect and girls won’t like you—or being a guy who doesn’t fight. You also know that if you do choose to fight, every tough guy is going to try to test his toughness against you.

Based upon his day-to-day interactions with students, Jamie Utt agrees that most boys probably walk around with the daily threat of violence on their minds.

Jamie was bullied as a kid, and while he feels fortunate to have had great parents and the opportunity to be in a school where violence was not permitted, he still suffered the daily fear of being hurt. He admits that he couldn’t help but fantasize about the ways in which he would defend himself physically.

“Even in an ideal American experience, I still saw violence. I thought about and fantasized about beating up kids who were mean to me…”

“Even in an ideal American experience, I still saw violence. I thought about and fantasized about beating up kids who were mean to me. I didn’t do it, I knew the consequences. I knew I would never do it, but it was just a release.”

In one of my favorite books about boys, Masterminds and Wingmen, author and educator Rosalind Wiseman tells the story of a promising young man named Dre, who got into a fight and ended up suspended – a punishment that would be noted on his permanent record. Dre was defending himself, but when the other boy stopped fighting, Dre continued. Wiseman explains:

Dre believed that he had to go after the guy full force to convince him to never go after him again. Using that line of reasoning, defense wasn’t enough. From Dre’s perspective, his offense was part of his defense—for the future… Dre understandably wants the future respect (meaning fear) of the guy who attacked him, so that he’ll be left alone. But that desire for future respect among his peers right now messes up his overall future, because if he has a history of fighting, adults wont trust him… His future of doing well in school, going to college, having adults who can explain the fight to other adults, becomes much less likely. To gain the respect tof his peers in the present, Dre is truly risking his future. (Wiseman, p. 227).

What do these boys have to fight about?

So what are all these boys are fighting over? Is it turf, as Beaudoin’s character Richie finds himself dodging punches for? Is it having to prove their manhood to not be targeted again, as Wiseman noted in Masterminds? Or is it mainly just survival, as Jamie Utt remembers?

Dr. Andrew Irwin-Smiler, an expert on teen and adult masculine behavior and author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, explained to me that it is our overall expectation of masculinity that puts this pressure on boys:

“Even in stuff related to sex or relationships, one of the very real ways that gender gets policed, at least among guys, is this perpetual threat or joke of ‘somebody’s going to kick your ass.’ It’s kind of always there, and guys know it.”

It seems there’s also a caveman-like expectation placed upon boys that they will protect “their girl”, as well as their sexuality, by any means necessary. If they’re not willing to do so, there’s the threat that they aren’t man enough to keep the girl.

“There is an understanding that one of the ways to keep a girl’s affection is to make sure that she doesn’t have any rival suitors. There’s a sense that your vigilance will somehow prevent another guy from ‘stealing your girl’,” Dr. Smiler explains.

“There is an understanding that one of the ways to keep a girl’s affection is to make sure that she doesn’t have any rival suitors…”

If this is how boys are seeing their relationships with girls, that they have no real will and therefore have to be protected like property, that’s a huge burden upon a kid. If you can step out of the scarily misogynistic message that sends boys about girls, you can start to imagine the stress our boys must be feeling. Without believing his girlfriend has the agency to choose a partner based upon his merit rather than just his perceived manliness, this girl could suddenly be snatched away.

Is there a solution, or is this just what boys do?

So what can be done to help release our boys from the daily stress the threat of violence takes?

Dr. Smiler explained to me that part of the reason boys believe violence works is that they see adults as a combination of being ineffective and not trustworthy. “They’ve learned not to go to adults. If you’re fourteen years old, the last thing you want to do is be the kid who tells the teachers or his parents, and has them take care of it.”

As a result, there is a very real sense within kids that they’re on their own, that seeking help to resolve a bigger problem would only make them more of a target.

When working with schools to help prevent bullying, Jamie Utt says that progress cannot be made until the biggest issues in the school, often unique to that school, are addressed. Sometimes it’s different factions of kids who hate one another, sometimes it’s race-based, and sometimes it’s more nebulous and hard to pin down.

He explains that the challenge with bullying and violence prevention in schools is that it needs to be tailored to the community and the culture of the school.”There are no quick fixes. It needs to be geared toward giving students options and tools that are not just fighting. Not just telling him to ‘choose the biggest kid and punch him in the face.’”

We need to talk to them – and keep talking to them – on their terms

In Masterminds and Wingmen, Wiseman offers a chapter on how to talk through the stages of a fight with your son so he can better understand his options and the possible real and lasting consequences. Her eight-point guide will help you talk through these issues with your sons, but, as she explains, “there are no ironclad rules.”

He can’t start the fight by his words or actions. He must always match the level of his response to the level of the threat. He needs to stop the behavior not the person. He doesn’t have the right to humiliate the person.” (Wiseman, p. 223)

To write her essential book, Wiseman worked with over 160 boys to learn about their lives and get insider advice on how parents should talk to their sons. Wiseman asserts, and I agree, that it’s crucial we teach boys what they’ll face when they get into a fight, so they can think through the reality and consequences of fighting in the heat of the moment, when they may not be reasoning well.

In an email, Wiseman explained to me that parents’ conversations with kids about fighting are woefully lacking.

I think both boys and girls need to be given reasonable and realistic information about the possibility of getting into physical altercations with other people. But overall, adults (parents, grandparents, other family members) coaches are more likely to talk to boys about physical fighting—there’s an assumption by at least one of those people that a boy will be in a situation where he will be in a fight or experience someone wanting to fight him. My experience with parents is usually the advice given to boys is either “violence is never the answer” or “use your words” or on the other extreme of “make sure you hit first and make it count.”

But talking to boys about fighting requires a hell of a lot more than asking them to punch a bigger kid or, conversely, the expectation that they will always choose to walk away.

My feeling, as a parent, is that the first step to helping our boys is to make clear that we don’t see the issue as black or white. We need to slow down, engage our boys in conversations on their terms and listen to them, so we can recognize the complicated social dynamics at play.

If I can do one thing for my boys, I hope it’s to give them a place to bring their problems where I will truly listen to them. And the first step to that is recognizing the reality of violence in the daily lives of boys.

But my son is still not getting a pocket knife. Or a pellet gun.


Lead photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Janels Katlaps

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane,,, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. Joanna,
    It’s interesting how much I can relate to the article. As a young man growing up in a violent society, it was almost standard for you to carry a Knife, not for carving anything, but as a weapon. And you knew it wasn’t a toy. If someone pulled a knife, they sure be ready to use it.

    As I grew older, I realized just how horrible living like that. First I switched the knife for a Sap (extendable baton) and I got better in Martial Combat, gave up carrying a weapon all together (other than pepper spray). And I am a pacifist!

    The irony is how most Cops that stop a Latino will search them for a knife. I might blame it on profiling, but I had about 5. Now I just have a sword collection, but that’s another story all together.

    The mentality was that you might be in peace with the world. That does not mean the world is in peace with you.

  2. trey1963 says:

    Part of the problem is that for thousands of years society has required “cannon fodder” to continue. How do you raise millions of young men ready to bear the ravages of war for their clan/tribe/gang/city/state/nation. Part of our current culture is aligned to keep those bodies flowing…….socialization in playgrounds and schools. Those stresses are rather likely to be what robs men of lifespan equal to women.

  3. Dre was right and Wiseman was wrong.

    Minimum force makes sense when you’re living in a world where people who commit assault against you are arrested, where restraining orders can be taken out and enforced, where society as a whole takes responsibility for providing protection to those of its members who have been targeted for violence. That was not the world Dre was living in.

    Dre was living in a world where he was on his own to carve out what measure of security he was able for himself. In that world, Dre is putting his life in danger by exercising minimum force. Because if no one is going to lift a finger to help you, you have to make sure that the person you stopped attacking you doesn’t come back for round 2. Because no one else will do anything to prevent that.

    I was badly bullied. Once had most of the bones in my face shattered, and the school’s official response was “boys will be boys”. It didn’t end until I decided I was okay with one of us dying, and not particularly caring which of us it ended up being.

    Dre didn’t have the luxury of this being an academic issue. This wasn’t abstract to him. This was life and death, and anyone trying to claim otherwise is part of the problem.

    But hey, I’m on blocked list because anonymous someones felt “threatened” by my sexual orientation. Should make the truth about this subject easy to ignore.

    • I also learned not to let your enemy back up. You have to hurt him enough that he can’t hit you any-more.

      I was 14, and I had another kid in a headlock, and I said I’d let him up if he stopped attacking me. He said that he wouldn’t attack me, then he attacked me, and put me in hospital. In my next fight I strangled the other kid so badly that the ambulance was called.

      People stopped picking fights with me for a few months after that.

      This was in a school that I was required to attend. As an adult I can leave a violent situation. In school I had no choice.

    • That’s interesting. Looks like something got screwed up on the blocker. I’m sure they’ll get around to wiping all memory of my existence soon enough, but until then, at least someone got the chance to see what I wrote, and could be validated by it.

  4. This is the usual Good Men Project stuff, which rarely ventures outside the narrow range between women telling men how to be men and men telling men what women tell them about how to be men. Both of these viewpoints make about as much sense as a man telling a woman how to talk to her girlfriends.

    If there is one thing no woman knows — even one who gets her information from YA novels and self-appointed experts — it is how to tell a boy to be a man among men. She is certainly free to speak. I am certainly free — I suppose — to tell her that she does not and cannot know what she is talking about. Calling this sort of writing arrogant is a little like saying playing professional football involves some contact.

    Having said that, the issue of violence against men is an important one. Before getting too far into it, however, we might consider that violence, especially violence directed against women, has fallen tremendously in recent years and is almost certainly at its lowest point in history and headed lower yet.

    Violence against men has declined much less. That may have something to do with the fact that we have approximately 1,600 women-only government-supported domestic violence shelters in this country, one in every town and city and several in most. FBI figures show 458 women killed by husbands in the most recent year. Meanwhile, in the FBI’s words, “Of the 12,765 murder victims in 2012 for which supplemental data were received, most (77.7 percent) were male.”

    Anybody know of any similar network of facilities a man threatened by violence can go for shelter, support, counseling, or anything? Any federal office of violence against men? Violence Against Men Act?

    Why are we so concerned about 458 murdered women and so unconcerned, or at least inactive, with regard to 9,918 murdered men? I don’t think killing women is okay. I don’t think killing men is okay either. I don’t think inequality is okay, and that is clearly what we have here in great abundance. How about we do something to really help these men? And I’m not talking about taking their pocket knives. How about giving them government-funded refuges? Mounting huge public relations campaigns like the ones against the less serious and more rapidly declining problem of domestic violence (incidents of which are down by about two-thirds in the last 20 years or so.) Passing must-arrest laws. Something besides women telling us how to be men .

  5. Anonymous says:

    I was bullied in high school. I was kind of on the fringe between different groups. I did a lot of hunting and fishing and only a little bit of sports. I had some close buddies who were on the inside of the sports clique because they were stud athletes but also shared my passion for outdoor activities. Anyway, I found myself in situations at two different points where I was being bullied. The first time I tried going to my father. He did the right thing and went to the school and confronted the principal about the issue. However, when the principal confronted the other kid he told the principal that I was bulling him (which was totally absurd). So all that did was serve to make the situation infinitely worse, because I went to an adult I was now a tattle tale. The whole situation came to a head where we finally got into a fight and neither really came out on too in the scuffle, but the bullying stopped because I finally stood my ground.
    In the second instance, it was a friend of the aforementioned bully, and he began to give me a hard time and one day physically assaulted me so I grabbed him, threw him into the lockers and pinned him on the ground I front of most of the kids in my class. I had skipped the “correct route” of getting help and took matters into my own hands. Again, after that, the bullying stopped.
    I was very fortunate in that the bullying stopped, but it makes me very concerned for my own son and what he may face one day at school. I went to school at a time when scuffles were permitted or at the very least the school staff just looked the other way. That isn’t the case these days…..

  6. This is brave. Confronting the realities for boys today and not minimizing their struggle is tough for parents. It’s easier to quickly reply with “That won’t happen to us” than it is to say “It just might happen to you and I might not be around”. Facing this issue with authenticity and honesty is the best preparation we can give. Beautifully written, Joanna. Thank you for this.

  7. Maybe you could give him boxing lessons?

    I think that the problem is some teachers, and school. I think that a lot of my former teachers enjoyed the fact that they could allow the more aggressive boys to bully the weaker ones. Being a teacher is an incredibly powerful position, and many of them abuse that power.

    Also physical violence against boys is tolerated in a way that physical violence against girls isn’t. I remember when one of us hit a girl, it was the worst thing that anyone had done, and we had a big class discussion about how we shouldn’t hit girls. But one boy kicking another boy while he was on the floor; the teacher’s response was “Well you got back up, and seem OK.” The boy doing the kicking wasn’t even told off.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Yes, Rosalind Wiseman’s advice on violence is never “don’t hit girls” but always about stopping the problem, and not escalating. That leaves a lot of room for parents to discuss with kids body size, their own strength and skills and understanding that they can NOT ever be the perpetrator, or one to escalate a problem. That encompasses boys hitting girls right there.

      Boys hitting girls is a HUGE problem. But all violence is a huge problem. I think the “boys will be boys” crap we’ve heard for generations fails to protect boys from other boys, as if, by virtue of being a boy, you have consented to being in a fight, which is complete BS most of the time, I’d think.

      • Boys hitting girls is a HUGE problem. But all violence is a huge problem. I think the “boys will be boys” crap we’ve heard for generations fails to protect boys from other boys, as if, by virtue of being a boy, you have consented to being in a fight, which is complete BS most of the time, I’d think.
        Agreed although I think that failure goes way beyond failing to protect boys from other boys.

  8. Tom Matlack says:

    Well I have a 9 year old son too–no pocket knife just real bow and arrow–and an 18 year old son who reports to West Point in 41 days. I’d say my two boys have experienced relatively little violence growing up. When I asked my big son about West Point, he said he wanted to serve, love the whole philosophy behind the school, but wasn’t sure about the guns part (he’s since made his peace with that). Certainly each has had physical scuffles from time to time but I wouldn’t say they lived in any kind of fear of violence. I was definitely bullied in junior high school and had trouble fighting back given my Quaker upbringing. I guess I am left agreeing with the idea that for boys and men violence is a fact of life, but not so sure about what necessarily needs to be done about it on a day to day basis. Put another way, if violence is part of the male DNA isn’t that okay as long as it doesn’t come out in perverse ways like bullying (or unjust wars)? I’m not thrilled my son is going into the Army, largely because I don’t trust our politicians not because I’m not proud of him for wanting to serve. It seems to me that we need to have a realistic view of violence in order to sort out what is okay and what is really not.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      Tom, congratulations to your son and I wish him the best. You said “Put another way, if violence is part of the male DNA isn’t that okay as long as it doesn’t come out in perverse ways like bullying (or unjust wars)?” This is something I’ve been saying for a long time. In some cases, these males who choose the military or for that matter any career which involves the physical AND mental strength is generally questioned. Whereas we (society) often times justifiably bring the more sensitive male to the front of the line, but in the same breath vilifies the stereotypical male who appears the maintain the macho image. We often times look at the “bully” and his violent nature yet we are in agreement that another guy who has the capacity to “fight” should step up and clobber the bully. So what message are we sending? Don’t fight, it’s wrong to fight but then again, guys are questioned as to why they don’t fight on behalf of ….

    • It seems to me that a realistic view of violence might involve looking at some evidence on the topic instead of just musing about our own particular situations and talking to some so-called experts. If we do that, we find that youth violence has declined enormously in recent years. Did you know that? Do you think most people know that? Given that this is true, is the sky falling with regard to youth violence? What is causing this very significant decline in youth violence? Is it because we don’t let our sons have pocket knives? Are all forms of violence declining equally? If not, why would some kinds of violence be falling more rapidly? Could we take this information and use it to suggest some ways of reducing violence still further?

      To me, these are the really interesting questions about violence. In the process of asking them, we could also provide people with genuinely useful information about youth violence, which they very likely are completely unaware of. Like this:

      It seems strange to me that any serious exploration of youth violence would fail to clue us in on the fact that youth violence has declined by more than 50 percent in the last two decades. Unless I missed something, this writer seems to have assumed that youth violence is a spreading epidemic without attempting to find out what the research indicates.

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