Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

The Danger of “Boys Will Be Boys”

Why this phrase should be banned from our vocabulary
Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D.
This post is a response to The Way We Talk About Gender Can Make a Big Difference by Christia S. Brown, Ph.D.

I’ve had a couple of different conversations with the teachers at my child’s preschool about some of the aggressive behaviors a few of the children have been exhibiting. It has been most alarming to wake up in the morning and have my three-year-old say to me, “I am a robot, I’m going to eat your brain and peel off your skin.” I was also concerned to learn that when a child brought in a Ninjago book, the teachers read the book to the children even though Common Sense media reports that this series is best for children seven and over, and rates it 0/5 for educational value, 2/5 for violence, and 5/5 for consumerism. When I have expressed my concerns about some of these issues, every conversation has ended the same way, with the teacher saying, “Oh you know, boys will be boys.”

That statement effectively ends the conversation because it leaves me too stunned and flabbergasted to respond. I bite my tongue each time because I don’t want to be THAT parent who is viewed as oversensitive and disengaged from reality. I also want to have a productive dialogue that will allow the preschool to hear my concerns in a way that may allow them to shift their thinking about how they address these issues. This blog is my attempt to organize my thoughts and gather some relevant research in order to help other parents and teachers who may find themselves perplexed by the same situation. So why is “boys will be boys” dangerous?

  1. It prompts students to construct gender stereotypes. A recent Psychology Today blog post discussed the impacts of gendered language in elementary schools and how teachers who simply said things like “good morning boys and girls” vs. teachers who said “good morning children” led students to engage in more gende-stereotypical thinking, such as “only women can be kind, gentle and take care of children” or “only men should be a doctor or construction worker.” These gender stereotypes are limiting for everyone. One of the most damaging impacts is a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” This refers to the impact of internalizing stereotypes about your group and having that impact your academic performance—this has been documented in the research of Steele & Aronson (1995) and Aronson & Williams (2004). Aronson explains, “when social conditions threaten basic motives—our sense of competence, our feelings of belonging, our feelings of control—this can dramatically influence our intellectual capacities.” He goes on to say, “These studies shed considerable light on how stereotypes suppress the performance, motivation and learning of students who have to contend with them, and they suggest what educators can do to help.” For example, students of color underperformed in similar measures when students were asked to mark their gender or race on their test papers. In cases where students were not "reminded" of this group membership—and as a result, the associated stereotypes—students performed much better. Another study confirmed that girls performed better in math assessments when stereotype threat was reduced (Quinn & Spencer 2001). Another Psychology Today blogger wrote eloquently about research showing how this impacted children as early as first grade and their attitudes toward math and language arts.
  2. Gender stereotypes allow unconscious biases to form and proliferate. "Unconscious bias" is a term that describes internalized attitudes about a particular group of people that then can shape our interactions with that group. In Jean Moule’s 2009 article, Understanding Unconscious Bias and Unintentional Racism, she calls this "blink of the eye racism," which in this case would be "blink of the eye sexism." These unexamined and deeply embedded beliefs are powerful in shaping how we make decisions in hundreds of everyday interactions, which can impact students’ educational opportunities. David Sadker outlines many examples of how this impacts students in his 2002 article, An Educator’s Primer to the Gender War. He explains that teachers give more attention to the "more active" boys and have less academic contact with the "quieter" girls, and although more girls are identified for gifted programs in elementary schools, by high school fewer girls remain in gifted programs—particularly African American and Latina girls. These stereotypes also reinforce the myth of the gender binary and "sex differences" which I discuss more in point four below.
  3. It is misinformed thinking and oversimplifies the problem. The expression "boys will be boys" attempts to explain away aggressive behaviors that a small number of children exhibit by linking it with "natural" or "biological" impulses, without examining other reasons for the aggression. Linking aggressive behaviors with a child’s sex assigned at birth ignores all the other environmental (family, media influences, messages at school, etc.) and individual factors (personality, nutrition, body chemistry, etc.) that might be influencing behavior. It creates an easy excuse to fall back on so adults don’t have to examine other reasons for such aggressive behaviors. It is also often used to justify schoolyard bullying—often very extreme cases that are violent and homophobic in nature—and causes many adults to accept negative behaviors as "natural." The school principal in the famous Nabozny v. Podlesny case—where a student was hospitalized after being beaten up for being gay—justified the assault, using such terms. This phrase allows harmful behaviors to persist unchecked and possibly worsen over time. It also reduces the likelihood of adults intervening in interactions that can be really harmful.
  4. It limits the full expression of children. Saying “boys will be boys” teaches children that certain behaviors are endemic to masculinity and exclusive to boys only. This form of thinking reinforces rigid binaries that cause us to develop more engrained “either/or” attitudes that allow our culture to ignore the true spectrum and variety of behaviors that individuals can exhibit. Janet Hyde from the University of Wisconsin, Madison has carefully critiqued the “science of sex differences” research by doing an extensive analysis of studies of sex differences. This meta-analysis of hundreds of studies showed that most reported differences between sexes are quite small. As a result she has developed the gender similarities hypothesis that humans are more alike on most factors than "common sense" would have you believe. The Psychology Today editors wrote about this study in a blog post in 2008 that summarizes the study quite concisely. Other books have been published that try to perpetuate the belief that males and females are very different, and the media is ready to repeat these stories because they are comforting and familiar to their audiences. However, they are not supported by the majority of research, and we need to be able to talk about children’s behavior in more complex and nuanced ways that don’t confine them to socially constructed pink and blue scripts.

Where do the kids who most salient identity isn't gender line up?
I want my child to grow up in a world that allows him to explore his strengths and express his personality in ways that are true to him, not in ways that society believes boys are supposed to behave. I hope that by sharing some of this research here, other parents and teachers may be able to work more actively to combat this misinformed approach to working with children, and allow our kids to explore and express themselves in ways that are authentic and healthy for them. This will hopefully minimize some of the academic gaps reported on here, as well as reduce some of the violence that many young men engage in, and allow gender-creative and transgender youth to be affirmed and supported in their home and school environments.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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