Boys will be boys: File under “unacceptable”

Boys will be boys.

I find that phrase a bit frustrating.  While I believe that there are definitely attributes that are inherent to the sexes, I also believe that as parents we have a responsibility to raise our children to act beyond their impulses so that they can learn compassion, kindness and empathy.

I watched our boys thoroughly enjoy themselves as they roughhoused with other willing children at our Pirate playdate.  They were all boys in the “mosh pit”, with mothers keeping an eye out and making sure that there were boundaries around the play, like keeping the hands off the face and neck, swords off the head, hands above the belt.

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In the back of my mind as I was watching this kind of play, is the lesson that we had read in science.  We were reading about wolves, and one section talked about how male wolf pups play fight in preparation for survival in adulthood.

Lightbulb!! So maybe in our human history, there once was a time when boys *had* to fight – it was a matter of having the survival skills they needed in a primitive society.  Except…in this first world country, we are far and away from being creatures of survival or subsistence.  We are, for the most part, living within four walls and purchasing food from stores; we are no longer battling our rivals for land or water.  Those days are part of our history, not day-to-day reality.

In the childbirth work we do, I talk about how women’s bodies birth in “cave mode”.  Our instincts don’t know we are birthing in the 21st century.  Unless we get rid of the virtual “tigers” prowling outside the cave, our bodies are closed to the birth journey.  Why wouldn’t that hold true for our sons? Maybe there is some deep instinct to fight for a variety of reasons: survival, defense, protection.  Watching the rough play, I realized that within our sons’ instincts there is probably a time and a place for that kind of play.

However, in this century, when we know better and can do better, we have to stand up against the “boys will be boys” idea as an excuse or an explanation for inappropriate behavior.  There is no reason why, in a civilized society, we are still hearing stories of rape and abuse.  Real men do not hurt, belittle and harm.  Why are we still accepting aggressive behavior from the white collar CEO who rants and raves at his staff?  Why does the rapist who preys on unsuspecting women know that he can, because the blame will fall on the woman and what she was wearing or drinking?  It has to stop.

The ideas that raise my biggest ire are the belief systems that teach the woman is mainly responsibility for a man’s desires.  Those in power tell women to dress modestly and wear a certain type of clothing, or else men will be tempted.  Really?? This is what we are spending time teaching from pulpits when there are so many other responsibilities that the church is charged with (widows, orphans, the homeless to name a few). Are we no better than base animals when females are in heat?  Are we to believe that there is nothing that a man can do to resist his urges??

Yes, I have learned that men are visual.  I get that images are interesting.  And guess what? There is such a thing as self-control, another teaching that is in many belief systems.  Why not emphasize that as well??  Every woman that boys and men are looking at is someone else’s mother, daughter, child.  That alone should be enough to exert some self-control, change their gaze, and start checking their impulses.

Where does this self-control begin?? It begins by introducing the idea when children are playing.  Stop “letting boys be boys” all the time, and start teaching them to be human beings with a heart as well as with impulses.  We can teach them that it is okay to have times when we play rough as long as everyone is in agreement, and then there are other times when we use gentle hands.  We have to be willing to intervene when other children are getting hurt, or when we see that the play is escalating to bullying.

As one of my friends says, “No matter what I do, I can’t keep my two boys from being rough with each other. They play by jumping all over each other. Constantly. I choose to allow that type of behavior, and I also choose to make sure it stays safe and respectful. I allow it because I feel that they are “born that way” and that it helps create bonding between them. I feel like that’s the way they talk to each other. Do I understand it? No. But I allow it with limitations while teaching them that there’s a time and a place. They can be crazy together, but they’re also required to be gentlemen when they interact outside of their circle.”

We can start by intervening when we hear a playmate say No or Stop, even it it still looks like they are playing to us.  When we are teaching the very basic concept of “No is no!” or “Stop is stop,” we can also teach them the reverse is true.  “Just like (playmate) is asking you to stop now and I am asking you to respect them, I would also expect someone else to respect you when you say No or Stop.”  And I am not talking about yelling, “No is no!!” across the room, and then continue on with whatever we are doing.  I mean that we are going over to the child, getting down to their level, and looking at them in the eye when this conversation happens.  We have to take the time to show them how important it is to respect others.

We can also demonstrate that concept when our children say No or Stop to adults in our social circles.  Something simple to deflect unwanted hugs, kisses, pats; whatever we know bothers our children based on past conversations or the body language we are seeing as the interaction is playing out in front of us. Here is a way we have handled it in our family, “Sorry, (family member)…it looks like (child) isn’t giving out (hugs) today. Maybe next time. (Child), please use your words to say good-bye today, okay?”  

Children will emulate what they see and experience.  It is paramount that we teach them that their personhood is respected, and they alone have the right to say what does and does not happen in their personal space.  Unless we can stand up and lead and guide with love, we will remain in the rape culture where a person says No and despite their protests, is forced to engage after the No.

I hold both my daughters and my sons to expectations of compassion, kindness and empathy – the qualities that bring out the best of our humanity.  Will you?

Special thanks to the SPB community who offered insights and suggested edits as I crafted this post: N.C., A.L., K.N., and J.S. – thank you so much for your time!!

Here is a question:
What if you are at a playdate or at the park, and one child’s parent is okay with the aggressive behavior, and the other child’s parent is not? How would you handle it, or how have you handled it if you found yourself in this sistuaion?