Boy Behavior or Bad Behavior? The Dangers of Romanticizing Masculinity

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By mistaking unchecked behavior for undeveloped behavior, we allow unacceptable behavior in boys and men to be seen as just another part of “being a guy.”

Years ago I knew a mother who had eight kids, the last six of whom were boys. The brothers were energetic, scrappy kids who were polite and rather likable when outside of the home. But inside? Well, let’s just say they fed off each other’s impish troublemaking and made watching over them a virtual nightmare.

This mom believed firmly in teaching kids to be good citizens of their home. Yet she remained unusually accepting of her sons’ casual avoidance of responsibility and their indifference to how their behavior affected the family. “I don’t know what it is with boys and their socks . . .” she’d say, or, “I don’t know why they have to bother their sisters so much whenever it’s time for bed.” I always got the feeling that she spent her evenings picking up stray socks and plates and nipping at her sons’ heels like a border collie, herding them through their showers and into their beds, thinking to herself something along the lines of, They sure run me ragged, these guys, but I guess that’s what boys do.

In most cultures around the world, boys do seem to enjoy a reputation for doing rascally, mischievous things that amuse grown-ups and make them think, Well, there’s a boy for you! It’s gotten to the point where some parents believe the “masculine spirit” is actually endangered if boys are socialized at too early an age. Under the doctrine of “letting boys be boys,” these parents wait too long to teach their sons the difference between being loud and rambunctious, and being loud and rambunctious at times or in places when it bothers other people. They wait too long to teach their sons that being competitive, even aggressively so, is terrific but that it should never become an excuse to make someone else feel diminished. Sometimes, they wait too long to teach their sons that circumspection, empathy, and kindness are not exclusively feminine qualities.

Years ago, author and feminist-critic Christina Hoff Sommers warned us about the dangers of failing to see the difference between boys, and boys who behave badly.  She pointed out that when we don’t take the time to differentiate between the two, we leave room for things like aggressive behavior or personal rights violations to be understood as a natural part of being male, rather than as a red flag. We stop short of looking for other reasons why a boy might be reckless or combative or uncharitable, such as upbringing, emotional problems, socioeconomic factors, or the particular mythology surrounding masculinity to which his parents subscribe.

I recently heard about a study showing that in the United States, girls three to six years of age have a much better ability to regulate their emotions and their behaviors than boys of the same age. Interestingly, this gender difference in self-regulation wasn’t found in any of the three Asian cultures included in the study. The lead author’s take-away was that here in the US, we expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys. Mine is the flip side of the coin: that in the US we don’t expect and therefore don’t teach boys to be as self-regulated as girls. And so—surprise—they’re not. I think it’s not unlike what happens with our teenagers, who don’t really have to be or even want to be all that moody and defiant. It’s just that somewhere along the line, adolescent “Sturm und Drang” morphed from a bio-physiological susceptibility into an assertive, self-fulfilling prophecy-disguised-as-developmental-theory lulling parents into complacency about their teen’s less-than-becoming behaviors. We’ve come to believe they’re hard-wired to act that way, but no—they go there because we let them.

Taken as a group I believe it’s fair to say that boys will always demonstrate more over-the-top, risk-taking, trash-talking behavior than will girls. But respecting the differences between genders shouldn’t mean we offer up exemptions to boys from behaving well. I can see how it might be physically or emotionally harder for a lot of young boys to keep their aggressive or competitive urges in check than it is for young girls, but it doesn’t mean we don’t ask them to do it. It means we help them do it by steadily encouraging and supporting their ability to exert control over their actions, and by getting them to see those actions as a function of the choices they’re making rather than as behaviors they can’t curb.

The “boy as lovable scamp” is an appealing abstraction of young masculinity, but it’s also a seductive one. It dresses up a regressed edition of a male and marches it around as something to be adored. The problem is, little boys with a puckish sense of humor often are adorable; it’s part of what makes the slope between boy behavior and bad behavior so darn slippery.

But with the bigger boys come bigger problems. The romantic veil that gets placed over the careless behavior of young boys can mask more serious transgressions later on, when these young boys become young men. The shrewd ones take advantage of this all the time, oscillating between charismatic confidence and a waggish charm for the audience of females they hope to disarm, and then seduce. This bad-boy-as-sexy-boy creates problems not only for the girls who end up taking these boys at face value, but for the “good” boys too, who, by comparison, come off as lacking in mystery or menace and, in the end, are desexualized.

The wish to protect children from early and unseasonable stress is a longstanding American tradition and many American parents consider it their right. However, when it ushers parents and educators away from holding children accountable for behavior that they could, in fact, control, such protection becomes a disservice. In addition, it communicates the unfortunate message that accountability is something to accept only when it can no longer be avoided. Otherwise, why such resistance to it? I find that an interesting but sad subtext to this conversation about the socialization of young children, because I think what kids need from us is the message that being in control of one’s emotions, actions, and reactions is something that truly empowers. It feels good, not restrictive or burdensome. People who live their days at the mercy of their emotions aren’t happy. They don’t feel free. Things happen to them and they don’t understand why. When we instead help our boys—including our very young ones—gain a sense of mastery over their bodies, and develop an awareness of the impact of their behavior on those around them, we offer them a leg up on the challenges they’ll face in life, and contribute to the raising of great boys who, later on, become great men.

Photo: MindaugasDanys/Flickr

Originally appeared at Janet

About Janet Edgette

Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D. is a psychologist and author practicing in the Philadelphia suburbs. Her most recent book is The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood, which addresses the marginalization of boys who don’t conform to traditional male ideals. It offers parents, educators, counselors, and coaches a variety of ways in which to facilitate supportive environments for these boys, as well as ideas for how best to talk with them—candidly, constructively and inspiringly—about the myriad challenges they face. Janet’s book is dedicated to both Jake and her brother, Phil, whose closest connection to sports was his kick-ass baseball card collection. Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette


  1. “Eagle25: What point would there be in addressing your argument? It would be a complete waste of my time to do so.”

    Why? I think it’s a valid issue and pertinent to this topic. In fact, this topic hardly gets any attention elsewhere and it needs the attention especially when we’re talking about equality between two genders here.

  2. Eagle25: What point would there be in addressing your argument? It would be a complete waste of my time to do so. Neither of us is going to budge on our ideological issues, so the only way to proceed is to simply not speak to you any further about that issue.

    I’m not interested in debate, you can either take my position or leave it, and I have the same option: I am opting to leave your position since I do not want to take it.

  3. Yay, love what you had to say, Michelle. When we expect less from our boys, well, we get less—and then blame the gender. No fair. Thanks for your comment, Janet

  4. Michelle Lee-Reid says:

    I am not a spammer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Michelle Lee-Reid says:

    I am a mom of two girls and a boy. I get so tired of people saying their sons are “all boy” or those with one girl and one boy say that boys are girls are different. No, it is our expectations and how we teach them that is different. We taught our son the same things that we taught our daughters. He is polite and well-mannered. At 11, he is still working on better self-regulation of anger, but so are many other 11-year olds (and older). When people notice huge differences between their son and daughter, they are simply seeing the difference between children. I see more differences between my two daughters, then between my son and my two daughters. One of my daughters and my son are very similar in temperament and interests while the other daughter is very different. Birth order also plays a huge part of it.

    We need to expect more from and for our boys, now and as they grow into men. Teach them to be kind, to see how their actions affect everyone around them, and to be respectful and loving.

  6. Until society (including the public school system) gets their priorities straightened, our boys are going to continue getting the short end of the stick. The answer isn’t to fix boy behavior or to stop romanticizing it. It’s to stop demonizing it and punishing boys for being boys. Go look at the statistics for young children diagnosed with ADHD and ADD and the other alphabet soup disorders. They’re predominantly boys because schools want them to act more like girls without giving them an outlet for their energy.

    • You bring up a good point, Kate, about boys being penalized in school for being more “kinetic.” I think what’s difficult about this issue is that there are so many boys whose needs for movement and energy discharge are totally un-bounded—they’ve never learned any degree of self-containment. It then puts it on the teacher — in the few moments she has to divert her attention to one boy — to discern whether this kid’s behavior is a function of a mis-match between boys and the delivery of education in that school, poor socialization, or the boy’s challenges with impulse control, or some combination of all three. It’s not a position I envy! Thank you for writing in – Janet

    • I was never “kinetic”, I have always been sedentary and quiet and bookish, yet I was also diagnosed with ADHD. Know why? Cause I didn’t act like those other little horrors and they thought there was something wrong with me. You can’t win, at all.

      It doesn’t matter what you do. I was wrong because I wasn’t running around and screaming all the time so I clearly was spending all my time day dreaming rather than actually thinking.

  7. Tom Brechlin says:

    Is it the boys who have it within them to lack the control or is it the adults that choose to label the behavior incorrectly? I tend to believe it’s the adults. I was babysitting my two small grand-kids this morning (boys – 1 +and 4 years of age). After reading your article and thinking of their behaviors this morning, I can definitely see that they are risk takers, especially the 4 year old. But risk taking is one thing and poor behavior is another.

    I think we’ve really lowered the bar for boys. I work with adolescent teens in a residential setting, all have some kind of legal issues and most have been placed in treatment through the court system. One of the first things I was taught is to know the difference between criminal/addictive behavior and/or adolescent behavior. Many of these kids are without boundaries. Oh, but how they thrive with boundaries!!!!

    I love the fact that they are risk takers but sadly much of the risks they take put them in jail or worse. Many lack impulse control but in a controlled setting, they learn. I encourage these guys who love the adrenalin rush in what they do and apply it to something constructive. Ya gotta be one unique guy to hang off a 40 story building and wash windows or long haul chemical loads.

    Much of what I see (and this is not taking away their own accountability) is that many are who they are because of their environment aka “home. “ I get sick of hearing parents excuse behaviors simply because they’re boys. The same as I get sick of parents telling me, “but he’s an addict.”

    All I can say is that as a society, we’ve really short changed our male youth … just another sign of their disposability.

    • “I think we’ve really lowered the bar for boys.” I couldn’t agree more with you about that, Tom, as well as your remark about short-changing our boys. All this excusing of unbecoming behavior “just because they’re boys” is a disservice to everyone. It makes it sound as if boys are incapable of behaving better or more sensitively! I like your point about channeling some of the features of adolescence (such as risk-taking and novelty-seeking) into constructive activities. Daniel Siegel has just written a terrific book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, which talks about these forces as both challenges AND potential gifts for teens. Great book, check it out. Thanks for your comment. Janet

  8. I think you’re absolutely right about that, I’ve seen it in my own life. Those of us who, while growing up, did not portray the image of aggressive masculinity, no “mystery”, no potential threat, we were and are still completely de-sexualized by the media and society.

    I think this is what gets to the heart of the current “assholes vs. Nice Guys vs. nice guys” debate. I think there are a lot of really really frustrated young men and adults out there who have always played by the rules, always done their homework, always eaten their veggies, always minded their manners, always treated women with respect, who get completely ignored because the societal message is by default that they are not “real boys” or “real men” because they don’t behave in a manner which is consistent with that “boys will be boys” thema. Some then get completely frustrated by consistently seeing the boys and men who do behave in whats which are socially encouraged, but which are often morally and ethically dubious due to their effects on said society, consistently rewarded for what amounts to extremely bad behavior. The boy who drives too fast, the boy who smokes, the boy who bullies or intimidates or talks back or out competes in team sports.. these are the boys who get the girls.. and so are then doubly rewarded (women are people, they chose to go after whomsoever they want, but one must keep in mind how much of that is socially programmed into them, regardless of what the Evo Psych crowd wants you to think). They get the attention of the adults (be it negative or positive) and they get the usually positive attention of the girls/women. This leads to an attempt to get what they want (women) through subterfuge or trying to “nice” their way into her pants. All it really does is produce more assholes to populate the world and spread bitterness.

    • I appreciate your comment, which validates this idea that good guys are de-sexualized by virtue of their bad boy counterparts. What a shame; hopefully this will begin to change as more and more attention gets paid to our collective need for good men as well as our understanding of what it means to be one. Thank you for writing in. Janet

    • OP: (women are people, they chose to go after whomsoever they want, but one must keep in mind how much of that is socially programmed into them, regardless of what the Evo Psych crowd wants you to think).

      Isn’t that an excuse, though, to let them off? Because if we’re talking about enabling stereotypes and harmful notions about the male gender, then these women who choose the bad boys are just as compliant in keeping men from breaking out of their boxes.

      I think it’s time we quit putting the onus on only boys to change or changing boys alone. Girls aren’t existing on a separate plain or dimension. They share this world with the boys, they do things that propagate harmful notions about boys just as other boys do. Therefore, they need to learn how much of a step they take in this dance.

      Equal responsibilities.

      • I think that is true, but the first step is stop the double standard entirely.

        This sort of is a continuation of a debate which happened on here about men with long hair not that long ago. Effectively today, in the west, (and most of the world) it is socially unacceptable for men to have long hair. But you don’t have to go back that far to find high ranking government officials, military officers, stage performers, etc who sported long hair. If you go back 200 years, practically EVERY man had long hair, and if he didn’t he wore a wig to replicate it. Same thing in fact, the “Pump” shoe which is now standard for women, was originally a mans shoe just 200 years ago. 200 years ago, a man who was bookish, well read, pale, and put on what we would consider to be extremely effeminate airs was a model of upper class manhood. Something changed though in the last 100 years especially, and profoundly in the USA where anti-intellectualism runs to the heart of essentially all of our problems to a greater or lesser extent like a cancer.

        The difference I think is, most women come to the realization that these sorts of guys are the better sort to be with, they just tend to do it later. They do this precisely because of the stereotype being perpetuated. If the mysterious brooding bad boy always makes the girl happy (and changes for her ) in the movies.. of course people are going to want that product just as much as most teenage boys don’t really want teenage girls they want idealized figures from films and tv.

        I think that so long as we are struggling at showing women in non supporting roles and as more than sex objects, but as capable and smart individuals on TV and in film, we will continue to have the same problem showing boys and men that way. This is precisely the reason why shows like Freaks & Geeks didn’t last. It upsets the paradigm and sets the stage for questions just like this.

        But it’s going to take a lot of effort. we have to present different cultural representations of masculinity to widen the field, and we also have to have parents understand they need to raise their boys better, and then we need to start educating all children to the same standards, and also deemphasize both competitive sports ( Soccer is amazingly egalitarian in terms of who can play it and it is my sneaking suspicion that this is the reason why Americans have been so cool to it, it’s a sport which can end in a 0-0 draw and still be called a good game) and emphasize academic achievment. Start talking about the Matheletes and the debate team going to finals and the kids who make it onto Knowledgebowl and all that sort of thing. Oh to live in an ideal world…

        • “I think that so long as we are struggling at showing women in non supporting roles and as more than sex objects, but as capable and smart individuals on TV and in film, we will continue to have the same problem showing boys and men that way.”

          I highly disagree we’re struggling at showing women as capable and smart individuals on TV and in film. To the point where I’m resisting the urge to hold back all my rage.

          Why? Because as someone who was hurt by girls and women in his childhood, I see that we’ve completely gone off the deep end and overcompensated. Not only are women shown as capable and independent in TV shows and movie, they’re also the wise, healthy beings that solve problems better while the male supporting characters bundle it up. You don’t need to look further than youth oriented, live-action programming on Disney where the boys are depicted as dumb, broken louts who create problems as the girls solve them.

          Don’t even get me started on movies and TV shows that encourage our strong, capable, independent female character to beat and belittle their male supporting counterparts. Sometimes in their face with no consequence and no self-realization that they’re being mean-spirited and abusive. (Wreck-It-Ralph and the infamous abuse he received from one major female supporting character all because he nearly goofed up the scenario in a First-Person Action game as a shining example. I still cringe when even thinking of it). That’s what is termed “empowerment” nowadays or no big deal.

          So forgive me for refusing to believe that women aren’t portrayed as independent and capable in today’s media when the pendulum has obviously swung so far towards that and even beyond it’s laughable to believe otherwise.

          • “But it’s going to take a lot of effort. we have to present different cultural representations of masculinity to widen the field, and we also have to have parents understand they need to raise their boys better”

            Should also mention you need to add that parents should raise their girls better so they don’t go around believing they can hurt and abuse boys while hiding behind such gender stereotypes as “boy don’t ever hit girls”. Same thing for boys who enforce it alongside the girls.

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