Why The “Boys Will Be Boys” Myth Contaminates Relationships

October 29th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

Many parents hold as a mantra the idea that “boys will be boys.” The saying has been around a long time. Although I couldn’t pin down the exact etymology I was able to go back nearly 100 years to when Will Rogers was in a movie of that title in 1921.

Will_Rogers_1922

Even those seeking to learn English are introduced to the idea that boys will be boys as a way to understand American phrases and cultural norms.

Here’s the problem though. The “boys will be boys” myth contaminates our relationships with the boys in our lives. I’ll give you an example.

This weekend I was at a food related fundraising event for my children’s school selling some crafts. The boys and girls loved one craft in particular. It was a purple flower pot. The children can put it together themselves and use it as a photo clip. There were, however, four crafts the children could choose from. There was the purple flower craft kit, a moss colored grapevine frame craft kit, and two other crafts in primary colors.

The interesting part was what happened when boys wanted to buy the purple flower pot and girls wanted to buy the moss grapevine frame.

The problem with the “boys will be boys” myth is that we let it infiltrate our behavior in ways we are not at all aware of. There was one boy in particular where this dynamic stood out. The boy wanted the purple flower pot. The father urged him to consider the other ones. The boy pressed the issue. The father persuaded further. The father won out and the child actually bought all of the other three options, but not the purple flower pot even though that was the one the child originally wanted. My friend and I saw the same persuasion techniques for some of the girls who wanted the moss colored grapevine frame but who were dissuaded by their parents.

In some ways the situation is very simple. The child expressed a desire. The parent requested the child to consider another option. Research shows that people need to provide a reason when making a request if they want to increase their chances of success. But the parents didn’t have to. The parents didn’t have to say anything explicit about gender. They didn’t mention anything about color. Indeed they didn’t have to provide any reason for their request. Their coercion was based entirely on their authority in the family. The conversation often went like this:

child: I want this one.
adult: Why not this one instead?
child: No. I want this one.
adult: I think you should get this one.
child: (silence)
adult: This is the one you should get.
child: (purchases the one requested by the adult)

So parents -along with the media, educational institutions, and so forth- help to socialize girls into stereotypically girl-like behavior and boys into stereotypically boy-like behavior. This isn’t necessarily at the conscious level on the part of adults. We just engage in these behaviors without realizing that the stereotypes affect how we respond to our children. It’s the same process that made me constantly refer to my daughter’s participation on the “softball team” this past summer and then have to correct myself to say “baseball team.” I was accidentally socializing her to understand that softball is a ‘girl’s sport’ and baseball a ‘boy’s sport’.

So, boy and girl stereotypes affect our behavior as parents in ways we don’t realize. Although my example of choosing one craft or the next may seem negligible, this socialization process actually does matter.

Let’s revisit that example. The little boy persisted. Every chance he got he came to visit that purple flower craft he couldn’t buy but wanted. Eventually he pushed the issue and through his own determination he eventually came proudly back to purchase it.

So that little incident wherein he was coerced to buy the other craft didn’t go unnoticed by the boy. He obviously thought about it. He pondered it. He must have wondered how he hadn’t ended up with the one he wanted. He had to have plotted a plan to get the one he wanted. Luckily, he persevered with the help of his family’s open mindedness and love for him. Unfortunately, when it comes to violating gender norms against a parent’s preferences most kids probably don’t persevere. That’s because gender stereotypes guide our behavior as parents in such subtle ways that it is difficult for parents to be aware of, let alone resist, enacting this socialization process. In our minds- even if hidden deeply- is the gender norm that purple flowers are for girls and moss colored items are for boys.

If you see your little boy as aggressive because he is naturally supposed to be that way according to the “boys will be boys” stereotype then believe it or not you might discipline him less than you would a girl engaging in the same behavior. Echoing a research study I read years ago that always stuck with me Kathryn Scantlebury from Education.com notes:

Teachers’ gender bias towards students can also extend to their response to students who challenge their authority. Such risk-taking behavior in boys is expected and at times praised, but assertiveness in girls is viewed negatively and labeled unfeminine… (Renold, 2006).

Teacher student relationships aside, family relationships are where the more important contamination can occur.

The premisses of the “boys will be boys” stereotypes suggest that boys seek independence more than dependence, feel more anger than sadness or fear, and respond to physical affection and dialogue less than girls. If you don’t believe that these stereotypes affect a parent’s behavior read a recent study about this yourself. One of the more fascinating studies that I have read that has stuck with me throughout my career found that people interpreted an infant’s cries as anger when they were told the infant was male and interpreted them as fear when they were told the infant was female.

This may seem innocent enough, but these distinctions affect behavior. The participants in the study who thought the infant was a boy expressed that the child needed to be left alone to get over being angry. The participants who thought the infant was a girl said the infant needed a hug because she was scared.

Listen, a hug is a powerful thing. It’s the hug that a child doesn’t receive that can mean the difference between good behavior and bad behavior being reinforced. And, unfortunately, I know first hand that it’s not as simple as using hugs as positive reinforcement for good behavior and withholding them when there is bad behavior regardless of gender. Consider my example below.

My son didn’t respond to time outs. He didn’t respond to toys or dessert being taken away as punishment. He didn’t even respond when in a moment of my own anger and frustration I threw out one of his toys as a punishment after repeatedly warning him I would do it. None of this worked. You know what worked? You guessed it. Hugs.

After a lot of trial and error we figured out that my son could accept any punishment we gave him, could take the consequences of his actions and move on with his life pretty quickly as long as the punishment was given to him while he sat on one of his parent’s laps and the discussion ended with a hug. All the anger he demonstrated when he was throwing tantrums melted away. The big fights disappeared. Our relationship got better. He became a better person. I did too.

It was only by seeing through the stereotype that we were able to understand him as a child not as a boy. We stopped assuming that his tantrums meant that he was angry and needed his space because “boys will be boys.” Instead we learned that his tantrums meant he wanted love and affection because he was sad that he was not getting what he wanted and scared that he was getting punished.

So the next time you think or say that “boys will be boys” remember that these stereotypes contaminate relationships with children. Instead of having “boys will be boys” as a mantra, try “kids will be kids.”

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