The Boys-Will-Be-Boys Myth

Digging in the dirt, roughhousing with the neighbor's dog, and playing tackle football in the backyard are all traditional boy behaviors. Rough and tumble is accepted, even expected of American boys. Boys are supposed to be tough and they are supposed to be tough on each other. Most young boys spend a great deal of time trying to figure out the rules of masculinity and how to live up to them. But the masculinity bar is set high; far too high for most boys.

American boys see ultra-masculine superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman, and they envy the strength, power, and courage they possess. Many boys worship these mock mortals and desperately wish they could grow up to be just like them. The reason is simple: Superheroes have already proven their masculinity. They are real men; only they aren't.

But boys don't get the message that Superman is not human, he's from the planet Krypton, or that Peter Parker (who in his pre-spider life was an unpopular nerd) was bitten by a radioactive spider, which gave him superhuman spider-like powers. Which leaves Batman as the only superhero who does not have superpowers. What Batman (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne) does have is intelligence, resourcefulness, insight, and years of extensive and grueling training to make up for a lack of superhuman powers. That Batman sure does set the masculinity bar exceedingly high.

Essential

The book What Stories Does My Son Need? A Guide to Books and Movies that Build Character in Boys by Michael Gurian focuses on the role stories and movies play in shaping boys' characters and in teaching moral lessons. He identifies and summarizes 100 movies and 100 books. Gurian includes questions for parents to ask when discussing these books and movies with their sons.

Even non-superhero role models can be intimidating. Everyone from muscle-bound professional athletes to perfect male-specimen action-adventure TV and movie heroes can make the path to masculinity seem unattainable. The media gives young boys the impression that in order to be accepted and successful, they must be tough, strong, and invincible. This is a real shame, since the actual qualities that are valued most in males are caring, compassion, the ability to provide for himself and his family, and solid inner strength; not brute strength or the ability to scale tall buildings in a single bound.

From a very young age, boys do seem to be more physically active and focused on developing dominant skills, while girls practice and hone their intimate skills. But is this nature or nurture at work? Are boys and girls born different or are they simply socialized to behave differently? The jury is still out on the exact interaction between biology and environment, but it is known that the variation within a sex group (such as males) is far more variable than the difference between sex groups.

Meaning, the variance in human males runs the gamut from very feminine males to very masculine males. Same goes for females: they range from very masculine females to very feminine females. This is why it is important to foster your child's individual growth and development instead of simply expecting your child to reflect the appropriate gender stereotype.

The boys-will-be-boys stereotype is particularly damaging to boys who don't fit the traditional mold. Those boys realize they are far from the ideal male stereotype, and for them it can have serious consequences for their fledgling identities and self-esteem. For parents, it is a hurdle to raise a boy who can see men as three-dimensional figures instead of one-dimensional cardboard-cutout action figures.

Boys need to understand from a young age that stereotypes are just that — type casting. Just because a stereotype exists doesn't mean he needs to buy into it. Boys need to be taught to be caring and compassionate, that it's okay to express emotions, and that they don't need to be tough guys to be masculine.

When a boy internalizes the tough-guy persona and strives to live up to it, there is a distinct danger that he will become a bully. The pressure to act like a man might prompt an otherwise passive boy to act out and bully a peer. But the real trouble starts when the bully boy is rewarded for his toughness with laughter and admiration from his classmates. The bully boy realizes that acting like a man is making other kids see him as more masculine, and he likes the feeling. The shame of it is that acting like a man in a child's mind is usually akin to exaggerated tough-guy behavior. The distinction between being a protector (typically male behavior) or an aggressor (typically bully behavior) gets blurred.

Adults excuse a large percentage of bullying behavior with a sigh and a shrug and a boys-will-be-boys attitude. Society has set a dangerous and destructive stage for young boys by placing that boys-will-be-boys stereotype on aggressive behavior. And what does that say about boys who choose not to act aggressively? That they are not masculine? Of course, an adult realizes that line of reasoning is ridiculous, but does a boy? Probably not. So until society changes (and don't hold your breath), teach your child how to recognize and confront aggressive impulses, allow him to display emotion and inner turmoil, and help him see through damaging macho stereotypes.

Excusing a boy's excessively aggressive behavior with the boys-will-be-boys ideology may prompt more aggressive behavior, not less. Furthermore, when a child is socialized to believe that his aggressive tendencies are predominantly or entirely innate or biological, he will believe that he doesn't have the power to control them. That is false.

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