Boys will be boys?

Recently, my friend’s 9-year-old son came home sad and confused. He had gone to the park with some boys he did not know well.tough-boys

After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”

Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.

Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”

The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.

So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.

I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.

*explicit language

82 thoughts on “Boys will be boys?”

  1. I can relate in a way. One time at school a couple black girls said some mean and nasty things about my mom when we were eating lunch at Hardee’s. We went to lunch every other Friday. I got up and told the teachers what happened. Some kids are so cruel.

  2. Hi Amber: I agree that kids of various races may make use of racist language to put each other down, and that can be terribly hurtful. In specifying white boys, I was thinking about the long, history of white masculinity being tied up with “protecting” white women from African American men’s (or Latino, or Native American men’s) “dangerous” expressions of masculinity — and how this construction of has historically been used as a tool and excuse for oppressing people of color. This racialized version of gender has been played out consistently since the inception of this country in tragedy after tragedy, so it carries a lot of power: thinking here of Emmett Till (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till) and many other lynchings, the representations of race/gender in classic films such as Birth of a Nation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation, a clip is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t-7SVbLjBw ), and the many, many stereotypes of women of color being promiscuous as a cover for or excuse for rape perpetrated by white men.(one great book on this, among many:http://www.amazon.com/Black-Feminist-Thought-Consciousness-Empowerment/dp/0415964725).

  3. “Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism.”

    It definitely isn’t just whites that are racist. My stepson (Hispanic/Caucasian mix, but looks white) got into a fight with a black kid. He came back to the house, told me what happened, and I went out to make sure the kid was OK and to talk to his mother. In the next few minutes I was called “whitey”, “cracker” and a “pasty ass motherf*****”. Further, the boy along with several of his friends made it a point to tell me how “real” black culture was compared to “fake-ass whitey culture”. All this because a water balloon landed by the kid’s feet and he decided that punching my stepson repeatedly in the face was the answer to the problem, instead of telling an adult. I later found out that this kid had been picking on my stepson at school and was just pushing the point home that he could push my stepson around anywhere. So, yeah. He’s a racist bully too.

    Racism: Bigotry towards a person based upon their racial characteristics, real or perceived.

  4. M did a very smart thing for someone so young. I feel sorry for the boys whom he went out with. They are definitely in need of a therapist and some powerful epiphanies about themselves.

  5. “…being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability.”

    Sounds like your average video game.

    “—for white boys—racism.”

    Not just for white boys. I’ve overhead former black friends talk about the Caucasian race as if we were halfway between arsonists and syphilis microbes. Apparently Whitey is the source of all the pain in their lives.

    You make a good point in your post but there’s a far worse group out there who uses dastardly tactics to control their ranks that can gun the gamut from grotesque public shaming to outright betrayal to suicide-inducing social abandonment. And who is the horrible population that does all this, often simply for their own amusement because they are bored?

    Girls.

  6. Reblogged this on Life Lessons and commented:
    I believe this is unfortunately so very true and is damaging the males in this and the upcoming generation, damaging their thought and belief system at a young age which makes it harder and harder to change their insight on subjects, and even their outlook on women and how to treat them, as they grow and age.

  7. I have always wondered why in the WORLD should a 9 year old ever be saying the F bomb! Well, he probably learned it from his own parents.

    It’s so sad to see small children being this way. M is very good for recognizing what was right. I’m a mother of a 9 year old boy who I make sure is being taught to respect and to recognize when it’s time to leave a situation, like M did.

  8. Thank you for posting this, I believe people know this but take it so municipal as “boys will be boys” that they do not think of how this is effecting all of these young males decisions and thinking to come about many things later in life. This is seriously affecting young male’s psyche for the worse.

  9. Boys won’t be boys. I hate that saying. Boys or girls are only as good or as bad as the people who raise them. You are obviously raising your son in a gentle, loving environment. If you swear, so will he, if you say racist things he’ll absorb it even if it’s subconsciously and repeat it. I’m an advocate of ‘do as I do, not do as I say.’ Good luck.

  10. Good for M. Getting away and telling an adult what bothered him was the right thing to do. It’s too bad kids have such ideas about violence and women, even their own mothers.

  11. Well said marymtf, I get so fed up with parents of unruly children using the term to disengage themselves from the anti-social actions of their kids. its time they took responsibility for their off-spring.

  12. “You make a good point in your post but there’s a far worse group out there who uses dastardly tactics to control their ranks that can gun the gamut from grotesque public shaming to outright betrayal to suicide-inducing social abandonment. And who is the horrible population that does all this, often simply for their own amusement because they are bored?

    Girls.”

    Both are bad, not one gender is worse than the other in hurting people. By forming a gendered hierarchy of violence, we’re completely missing the point.

  13. In the culture I know the very first to degrade a boy or man for not being ‘manly’ – in the terms I understand here – are girls and women. I feel therefore your otherwise excellent post lacks that crucial balance.

  14. I just wrote a blog about bullying, and how badly we as adults and parents act in society, demonstrating the worst behavior to our kids. I write humor columns, but I felt compelled to speak out on this terrible right of passage that far too many children suffer by. Well done!

  15. Sadly, as awful as they were, kids that young can hardly be blamed for identifying women/girls as ‘sluts’ – he’s clearly learning it from an adult around him.

  16. Something isn’t right ..Matter of fact something is very wrong these days; regarding all these incidents of bullying. Its generational for sure. The present generation that IS. Anyone out there in the 45ish to 50ish age group? Ever recall hearing all these incidents of bullying/anti-bullying campaigns, etc? Nope & no not at all..Its rampant these days though. Something clearly isn’t right. And I don’t feel its the children’s fault. Children aren’t born with these mean streak in them..Its taught and/or from lack of being raised with love. Or maybe its just lack of parents present enough..far too many children being raised by strangers while both parents hold down full time jobs. Whats at stake though?

  17. Being a boy is difficult and I think you describe the phenomenon well in this isolated instance. It’s a pretty typical white boy experience. Now take this similar experience in the urban setting where young black kids are threatened with real violence (not that suburban bullying isn’t real violence) such as being beaten severely and possibly killed unless they join a gang or help to sell drugs and you’ve just touched on one of the major reasons for the deterioration of the black urban youth. It’s sad.

  18. I still shudder when I think of bullying. My children are very young,but I can’t help by wonder,how bad would it be when they grow up? … Nice piece you have there.

  19. Thank you for sharing and bringing the topic to light. I also have a 9 year old, and makes me wonder if he goes through things like this. We’ve talked about kids who “are not friends” since a very young age. As well as what to do if it does happen. At any rate, my boy is a big 9 year old….but a gentle giant! Thank you for sharing.

  20. Reblogged this on GoStepAway and commented:
    There are so many differences between my childhood and the childhood of children these days. We should really understand their mind, way of thinking and guide them carefully.

  21. Girls can be very mean to each other. There is a lot of bullying going on among children in general. Children do not guidance and it starts at home. Schools can only do so much. At the end of the day we, the parents, are responsible for our children’s behavior.

  22. I have a seven-year-old son and reading these words felt like a punch in the gut. All I keep thinking is, where do these boys learn this stuff, and how awful/scary that your own son’s behavior appears to be the exception and not the norm. Bravo for raising a boy who knows how to stand up for what he believes in – even in moments when he’s thinking the world’s gone slightly mad.

  23. Once being a victim of bullying, I can vividly recall the potent emotional discomfort (which caused physical discomfort – sometimes vomiting). I’m still (10+ years later) fighting off the resulting insecurities. There are times when I doubt the sincerity of my closest friends. To this day, even when my closest friends say certain things or laugh at certain times, the pain of bullying resurfaces. During the days in which I was being bullied, I was spiraling down a very dark path (frequently binge drinking [Jack Daniels was my best friend] and backyard fighting with my friends). I would even fantasize about killing my bullies (and I’m not talking about shooting, but long – drawn out suffering).

    What stopped me from becoming a news story? Jesus. I won’t go on with my testimony here and now, but please feel free to ask me.

    Thank you for your post. Bullying is an issue that is often talked about, but only in passing or as a buzz-word for politicians to utilize for popularity’s sake. In a child’s life, being bullied is a trauma on par with the worst of abuse.

  24. I love this, and I’m so happy that your friend’s son didn’t lose himself in this experience. And I want to thank you for the link to Guante’s “Man Up” – it was brilliant!!!! Thanks so much!

  25. My son once sat inside our front entrance with his back to our front door while some neighbourhood kids tried to kick the door in because he had told them he couldn’t have anyone in. He was 12 years old and home alone. Being a new kid in the neighbourhood had made him a target. When my husband went to see the parents, one dad said, laughing, “boys will be boys”. We had a dent in our door, that’s how hard they were kicking while our son sat on the floor on the other side crying. It was sad the parents didn’t’ want to work with us to find a solution.

  26. Racism is truly an evil. Sadly, you jaded an otherwise fine article by illustrating and introducing racism in what you wrote. Shifting the approval for being racist isn’t the same as shaking the stench of the behavior from you soul’s garments. I truly hope I misinterpreted your meaning.

  27. Thank you very much for posting this post. Bullying occur mostly in the age between 9- 16 because children don’t feel secure enough, so they bully other. I believe that the home where you grow up is the most important place for your morals. If you live in a bad home, then easily you will become a bully.

  28. Thanks for posting this! I have an 8 year old girl and I can say that even though she is not a boy there is pressure on her as well to conform to the cool kids. She does not put up with any of it and stands her ground and for that I am proud but I must say M is a smart kid and handled the situation very well! =)

  29. I’ve been all over the world, helped on food-lines in some pretty nasty countries, and can tell you that this isn’t a “white-male” society thing.

    This seems to be the natural tendency of some males in every group.

    Aggression isn’t a white-male problem, it’s a male problem.

    It’s in every culture I’ve dealt with while traveling around the world for several decades.

  30. I have a BS (bonus child) and he is getting to the point where he is a follower and not a leader and that bothers me. I want him to know that it’s okay not to follow the crowd and to be his own person.

  31. Real men don’t bully or hurt the fragile ones. They protect and secure the weak. Those who resort to violence and oppression are the real wimps posing as tough, brave men. They are simply imitating the outward strength of real men in a twisted, skewed way, but deep down inside they are nothing but troubled, insecure, and scared boys whose behavior has been tainted and corrupted by violent homes or environment. Society have wrongly defined masculine, should we accept this definition of ‘boys wil be boys’ with negative connotation, that it is normal for boys to be obnoxious?

  32. Yesterday while picking up a pizza a Ford Expedition pulled in to the parking lot with music so loud it was echoing off of the buildings at the other end of the lot. The music was about selling drugs, raping women, and murdering snitches. Sadly there were 3 sub-10 year old children in the back seat. I considered saying something; except that my headache was rapidly progressing, I can’t run that fast in flip flops, and I knew it would fall on deaf ears (literally and figuratively, that music was LOUD).

  33. This is very timely for me, thank you. My own son [10-years old] is trying his very best to avoid the local lads who are, shall we say, a little rougher round the edges. These lads use very bad language, talk about violence and how tough they are and make nasty comments about the local girls.

    I have had, and continue to have, many father to son chats with my son and will involve myself as closely as I can with this, whilst also giving him *some* freedom to learn from his own experiences and moral choices. A tricky situation and a difficult balance to achieve.

    From the ground up, some sections of society glorify violence and dominance of others. This, no doubt, also plays it’s part in how some young males express themselves.

    In Peace, DD

  34. I agree that peer pressure in a group—no matter what color of skin—can lead to racist behavior and the use of racist language.

    But: “and—for white boys—racism.”

    I think this is misleading. Racism is not exclusive to white boys. I taught in a multi-racial school district for thirty years. The racial mix was 70% Hispanic/Latino, 8% white, 8% black, 8% Asian and 6% other. Racism is black on white; white on black; Latino on black; black on Latino; Latino on White; White on Latino etc.

    And when you are in the minority, it is best that you do not express or show any racism toward the majority. At the high school where I taught, Blacks, Whites and Asians often hung together forming friendships for safety against the Latino/Hispanic gangs that hated them for being Black, White or Asian.

    In fact, stereotyping Whites as racists is dangerous. We should not lose sight of the fact that if there had not been support from Whites, there would have never been a Civil War to free the slaves or the success of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Without White support willing to go fight and die to end slavery, the US might still have slavery in the Southern States.

    And racism is often directed at Asians from White, Black and Latino/Hispanic just because Asians outperform all other racial groups in school on average. One could also make a case that entrance to college is racist if you are White or Asian and that racism favors Blacks or Latino/Hispanic over White or Asian.

    If you are Chinese, Black, White or Latino/Hispanic and you spend enough time in a country like Japan—for example—and you will discover that racism is Japanese against all other races.

    I knew a white couple who rented a house on a Caribbean Island for a summer. They were the only White people on that small island. The brown people threw rocks at the house they rented and wanted them to leave the island. They were threatened with physical violence. They were scared for their safety and life. But the house belonged to the chief of the village and he wanted the rent so he intervened and stopped the hate—at least the physical and verbal hate.

    Yes, there are White people—both boys and girls—who are racists but racism is not exclusive to white boys. In fact, there are neighborhoods in most American cities where if you are not Black you better not show your face.

    For example, when I was in the Marines stationed in Okinawa, a few of us went to an area in the capital city called the Four Corners. We didn’t know that several blocks were exclusive to Black US military troops and we were warned—fortunate for us—by one of our own black Marines from our unit who went with us that we better get out of there or we would be either beaten or murdered by fellow American Black troops. He was even afraid for his own safety because he was with us White boys.

  35. I think a huge (and often ignored) problem in most every case of bullying (specifically boys who act out in that way) is who the bully is being bullied by. I was a bully growing up, not physically, but psychologically, and i know for a fact it was because of abuse I’d suffered at the hands of others. It’s easy to denounce bullying and the bully in one stroke. But instead we need to ask the questions: what lies is the bully believing about himself that he feels he must emphatically and desperately refute them? Who told them these lies, whether explicitly or implicitly?

    Often it can be traced back to abuse (physical, verbal, sexual, etc) or neglect in the home.

  36. Racism is not usally something black boys understand until they experience it either from a teacher or a white person. And even then a young black boys they are still a marginised group in the larger soiciety of a predominatly white privileged race who are predominatly the ruling class responsible for slavery which they still profit from while Africa suffers with disease and poverty.

  37. Girls are becoming like boys due to blured gender lines of modern society and also more misogynist due to hip-hop culture embracing lesbians like nicki minaj and lil wayne.

  38. I particularly liked your comments about how fragile things need to be protected and reinforced. It’s like saying that if you aren’t afraid of who you are and have nothing hide, then you don’t need to guard yourself or hide behind a facade just to fit in or survive.

  39. I am absolutely one hundred per cent with you, on this matter. Two years ago, a friend of mine who was barely eighteen shot himself. The reason behind it had been a meticulously carried out regimen of boys in his school picking on him,because of his size. And I watched my friend spiral through caffeine fueled extreme workouts for a year, gradually slipping into madness, and in the end shooting himself. Sure the boys who were responsible were in trouble, but that’s never going to change anything, is it..

    Good post. Keep it up. We need more voices like yours out here.

  40. I actually cover this topic heavily in some articles regarding manhood. I’m not sure if you read “Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge, its quite fascinating as it deals with this topic and with the issue of raising boys to be real men!
    Great article. Sad, the circumstances.

  41. It is sad when kids behave like this, I’m more conscience of it now having two children, thinking how I will direct them to deal with it. You seem to blame gender identities yet plenty of girls too are uncouth, have a lack of respect for property, animals, people and women. I say tackle the attitudes in general. It felt like you blamed gender identities.

  42. M definitely was raised the right way. He should be an inspiration for all children, knowing to avoid something if it is going against your principles.

  43. You have a smart kid. His presence of mind will continue to serve him well, I’m sure! I find it disturbing that 9- year-old boys know how to talk about girls like that, and I’m glad your son found it disturbing too!

  44. I can relate and it is sad indeed that there are so many others there that can relate to your experiences!
    Our son experienced bullying while at school, but today is a well balanced and wonderful 20 year old! Bullies will be around us wherever we will be, but we need to stand tall and grow above them because we are much stronger than they are!
    Shower your child within love and care, as one of the previous bloggers said, he is smart enough to overcome this! Off course, always with your help!

  45. I really enjoyed your post about M and how you were able to see and put into words to share with others really moved me. I am currently an expat raising three children and considering repatriating into the US, my fear for my two young sons who will be entering into school this year and then youngest in three years along with my eldest child a 14 year old girl entering into an American High School makes me lose sleep at night knowing what is not only before them but as well for me as I try to protect and help my children grow. I look forward to reading more of your works.

  46. Thanks for sharing. As a Mom of 3 boys , I hear you! I had the exact same conversation with my eldest son (10) about being part of the group by focusing on the ‘other’. Your words are so much better than mine were, glad I read your post this morning.

  47. Nice piece. Good on your kid.
    Y’know, I got chased through the woods by a few bigger lads when I was about eight. They said I was a girl cos I had long hair – yawn, it’s 1973 fellas – still, I had to prove I wasn’t, or…well, I dunno. Or what.
    They ran off after, shouting ‘URR URR A GIRL WITH A WILLY’
    Bastards eh?
    I sort of won in a way. But boy, has it stayed with me!!

  48. It’s not just young boys that deal with bullying like this. If they’re like this at 9 years old, I can’t imagine what they’ll be like when they hit high school. My younger sister is 15 and just last year she dealt with some girls who were really very mean to her. Unfortunately, she said and did the things they wanted to please them, and yet every day she’d come home and cry because they were so mean. When I asked why she didn’t just hang out by herself, she said having friends who are mean is better than not having friends at all. I completely disagree with that statement and I think people sometimes have this need to be around other people. I know I’m happier around other people, but not when they’re not being nice, even if it’s not me they’re being mean to. I hope it’s just a phase that she’ll grow out of.

  49. I really couldn’t agree more! Having studied Sociology for 7 years, exploring gender differences and socially constructed ideals, I have learnt a great deal about hegemonic and ‘;subordinate’ masculinities. It fascinates me that in order to be accepted amongst other boys, young men have to prove their worth by downgrading women, turning to violence and generally acting ‘tough’. It’s something I wish we can change in the near future! Brilliant post!

  50. Reblogged this on Secondhand Speech and commented:
    If graduating in Sociology has taught me anything about masculinity, it’s that it is all backwards. Bullying, homophobia, racism, sexism and violence is NOT a fundamental part of being a ‘big’ man. It’s a fundamental way to lose respect. Fast.

  51. I can definately relate to this, being one of the victims to bullying in school. The good thing about bullying and exclusion is that it enables you to look inside yourself, and discover things about your soul you propably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That you are stronger than this, and that good things await. That doesn’t mean that bullying is alright. It simply means that however bad things might be, the sun is always on the other side of the clouds.

  52. Being a girl you hear so much about girl politics and the bitchiness between women, but I don’t think enough is looked into the world of boys. People would always to me say that boys didn’t have as many issues and that they had it easier. I always found it laughable the think they had it easier, and this proves it. The idea of masculinity even being a thing is so interesting.

  53. It has been so interesting reading everyone’s thoughts on this piece. I want to thank those of you who have pointed out the complexities of how race and gender work together, making this a richer conversation. Also, everyone who shared their own story of being bullied and surviving bullying : thanks for putting your stories out there.
    People who found this blog compelling may want to check out this Kickstarter project, The Mask You Live In, about boys and masculinity: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jensiebelnewsom/the-mask-you-live-in I can’t wait to see this movie!

  54. Safety – in one’s home, in one’s self, is incredibly important to the optimal development of the child, and subsequently, in adult relationships. Thank you for your post on this….

  55. boys will be boys… I always wondered what the logic behind that was whenever i’d hear parents saying it about their sons. Their sons could be throwing punches or kicks at one another and they’ll just shrug saying, ” boys will be boys.” what the heck does that mean? isn’t it common sense to pull them apart and say what the heck are you kids doing? sign on compassion on a boy means they’re not growing up right apparently and yet all I hear are complains from certain people saying why are all grown men so stoic or why won’t they converse with me? Can we tell them then that boys will be boys? you make a great point here.

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