Joanna Schroeder insists that dismissing boys’ bad behavior as a natural part of being male is dangerous for both boys and girls.
I’ve always been a guy’s girl.
Maybe it’s because I have older brothers, and grew up surrounded by boys and boy stuff. One of my best friends is a guy whom I’ve known since we were born, one week apart, in houses separated by a big, shaded park. He and I even lived together as roommates in college, when I was newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease and was still quite sick. Tim was the one who was there to drive me to the hospital when I was at my most ill, and took care of me when I recovered. I also have two great dads—my father and my stepfather. All my life I’ve felt like I understood men and masculinity innately.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have amazing female friendships, I always have. But I don’t really understand women the way I do men. The most fulfilling years of my life have been spent in partnership with the best guy I know—my husband—and as fate would have it, we were gifted with two sons. People ask if we’re going to try for a girl, and while I am sometimes envious when I see my friends’ daughters in their pink hi-tops and pigtail braids, I always say, “Nah, nothing could be better for me than having two sons.”
And sure, these two little ruffians are a mystery to me sometimes—I don’t get the constant need to be making weird or disgusting noises or the obsession with weapons. But if I’m being completely honest, I understand Barbie and her obnoxious pink accessories even less than I do light sabres, so all is well in boyland.
Maybe that’s why Soraya Chemaly’s compelling essay, “The Problem with ‘Boys Will Be Boys‘” has been needling at me since I read it last week. Chemaly* reflects upon one boy in her daughter’s school who insists upon knocking down her child’s carefully-constructed block castles every day, with no apologies or intervention from his parents. The author explains:
No matter how many times he did it, his parents never swooped in BEFORE the morning’s live 3-D reenactment of “Invasion of AstroMonster.” This is what they’d say repeatedly:
“You know! Boys will be boys!”
“He’s just going through a phase!”
He’s such a boy! He LOVES destroying things!”
“Oh my god! Girls and boys are SO different!”
“He. Just. Can’t. Help himself!”
I tried to teach my daughter how to stop this from happening. She asked him politely not to do it. We talked about some things she might do. She moved where she built. She stood in his way. She built a stronger foundation to the castle, so that, if he did get to it, she wouldn’t have to rebuild the whole thing. In the meantime, I imagine his parents thinking, “What red-blooded boy wouldn’t knock it down?”
I will admit that I’ve said some of these things myself, such as, “He’s such a boy!” and “Girls and boys are so different”—things I never thought, in a million years, I would hear myself say.
As a feminist from a long line of suffragettes and women’s libbers, I hadn’t expected to see such a difference in children’s behavior based upon gender, particularly in our very progressive community, where many kids are free to express gender in any way they see fit. 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.
Regardless of what is nurture or nature, I agree with Chemaly that excusing bad behavior by saying “boys will be boys” is dangerous. She connects “boys will be boys” mentality with rape culture, saying, “I know it’s a lurid metaphor, but I taught my daughter the preschool block precursor of don’t ‘get raped’ and this child, Boy #1, did not learn the preschool equivalent of ‘don’t rape‘.”
It feels a bit harsh at first, but it’s crucial that we teach our children the fundamentals of consent early on (see The Healthy Sex Talk, Teaching Consent Ages 1-21, which I co-wrote). Teaching kids and teens to see how their actions affect others is crucial in helping end rape culture, and making the world better place in general.
So what is it that is sticking in my ribs about Chemaly’s piece, since I ultimately agree with her? I think it’s the idea that the “boys will be boys” attitude is damaging only for the females who may come into contact with males who are raised under that paradigm. I don’t think that is necessarily what Chemaly believes, or is even asserting, but that is the primary focus of this piece. That “boys will be boys” hurts girls.
But the “boys will be boys” mindset, as it is used in our society today, harms boys and men, too. Here are a few ways both boys and girls are affected:
1. “Boys will be boys” encourages boys to abuse one another, too. I’m not (necessarily) talking about male-on-male rape here, but rather fighting, bullying, destruction of one another’s property, and the assaultive “touch games” like punching one another in the testicles or pinching each other’s nipples—behavior that is often dismissed as boyish hazing.
When we dismiss these behaviors as “boys will be boys” we’re telling the boys who don’t enjoy this type of physicality that they aren’t “real” boys, and we effectively silence them and force them to hide the hurt or humiliation they may experience as a result.
2. “Boys will be boys” is a prescriptive form of masculinity that is limiting to boys who may not be the little brutes our society says they should be. It shames boys who are sensitive, boys who don’t like getting dirty or wrecking things, and boys who don’t perform their gender in any other way society dictates they should.
It also limits the behavior of girls. I think of Victoria, whom my older son has been playing with since they were babies. Victoria has always loved playing with Izz because of their shared passion for mud, bugs, frogs, and elaborate imagination games where they are paleontologists or archaeologists, digging in flowerbeds and sandboxes until they’re both caked in dirt. Victoria loves pink dresses and flowery headbands as much as she loves having a frog jump onto her lap.
If we teach that these are strictly boyish behaviors, then we also limit collaborative boy-girl friendships like the one between Izz and Victoria. And ultimately, buying into the “boys will be boys” mindset limits any child whose interests and behaviors fall outside of our rigid gender binary.
3. “Boys will be boys” excuse-making sets up a pattern of gendered perpetration and victimhood that hurts everybody. When we hear one boy’s bad behavior dismissed as just a natural part of masculinity, we teach girls that they are helpless against the things males are supposedly biologically programmed to do to them. Worse, as Chemaly points out, we teach boys that they are, inherently, out-of-control beasts with no option but to follow their first instincts, regardless of who may get hurt.
And yes, dismissing unkind, thoughtless, selfish or even dangerous behavior as inherently boyish teaches our sons that part of being male means harming others and being careless with their feelings. Which is, of course, an utterly incorrect generalization about men. You don’t have to go far in our world to meet amazing men who show that masculinity is characterized as much by strength of body as by strength of character—as well as compassion, nurturing, empathy and so much more.
Beyond that, expecting that aggression is natural in boys, but not in girls, dismisses the feelings and experiences of boys who may experience bullying or abuse perpetrated by a female.
4. When we use the “boys will be boys” excuse, we don’t give boys the skills they need to deal with feelings of frustration, or to ask clearly and directly for what they need emotionally. Instead of teaching our sons verbal skills and collaborative play, we are sending them out into the world missing some very crucial lessons that could help them succeed in their relationships, as well as in their professional lives.
5. Dismissing truly bad behavior as “boys will be boys” taints some of the really fantastic behavior that we typically think of as boyish. Getting dirty, making mud pies, digging giant holes, chasing lizards, catching bugs, good-natured wrestling or even playing “war” are all generally sen as boy stuff. But regardless of whether boys or girls are involved, those forms of play encourage creativity, scientific thinking, compassion for smaller creatures, organizational play, and problem-solving.
Boys deserve more than to be stereotyped or disregarded. Society sells boys short when we propagate the myth that they simply cannot control themselves. It’s time to lay “boys will be boys” to rest, once and for all. For the benefit of both boys and girls.
*The original author of this article was noted incorrectly, it has since been corrected.