We have all heard the expression “boys will be boys.” It is hard to know exactly what this means. Quite often when referring to horseplay and backyard tussles among boys, we are asked to conclude that this rough play is not only acceptable but also expected. First time parents of boys are especially often left wondering where/if there is a line between fun and fighting.
It is no secret that males are physical creatures. From the beginning of human’s time on earth, males have relied on their physical prowess to ensure survival. In their role predominantly as hunters, males were required to put athletic abilities to good use in order to feed their clans.
The tween years are a time of developmental differences from individual to individual. Males are particularly prone to periods of awkwardness as their bodies grow in spits and spurts. Sharp tongues and sassy interactions between tweens also often characterize these years. Although girls are more frequently identified as aggressors in ‘tween mean,’ backyard bullying is a common course of action among tween boys. Quite often the pushing and shoving is in the context of an athletic endeavor: a grab for the ball, a shove to move an opponent out of the way. This physical sparring can however, quickly escalate. It is not uncommon to see some blows thrown in the midst of a heated interplay.
The thing most of us observe about boys and these physical altercations, are how quickly they end, boys move on. A parent peering out a kitchen window maybe afforded the opportunity to watch the interaction evolve full-circle. One boy says something to another perhaps in a joking manner, teasing continues and erupts into physical reactions, pushing shoving, etc. As quickly as the physical aggression begins, it usually easily ceases. The boys then go back to playing, joking, teasing, and talking, none the worse for wear.
In an effort to affirm themselves as ‘top dogs’, tween boys tend to prey on their fellow tween’s vulnerabilities. It is indeed usually the strongest of the boys who lead the pack. This is not necessarily because he is the most aggressive. In fact in reality, the strongest boy is not required to use a show of force to secure his standing. The other boys know who he is, and naturally accept his top place in line. This is indeed a common phenomenon in all of the animal kingdom. It is usually some of the boys who seem more awkward who try to prove themselves aggressively. We call these boys bullies. By definition, a bully acts with ‘malicious intent.’ Put simply this means there are a group of boys who act aggressively in an effort to take a top spot by using brute force. Perhaps the irony of their approach is that they rarely secure any such ranking.
The backyard banter that turns badly on the playground or backyard however, is usually not a brand of bullying; there is no malicious intent among the brethren. Instead, it is the way tween boys interact and affirm themselves among their peers. A parent’s role is to model appropriate behavior and mediate interactions, especially when they get too aggressive. Defining this line is of course the challenge. As parents we do not want to encourage violent responses. We hope to teach tolerance and negotiation. These are indeed important lessons in life.
Demonstrations of physical strength come quite naturally to a majority of boys. As parents our role is to divert this physical energy into positive interactions. The playing field provides a good venue for this, as do interests and hobbies that require hard physical work.
There is no way to prevent all physical interactions among tween boys. The truth about tween boys is that they tend to be physical creatures. As they grow and develop they learn positive ways to use their physical prowess to negotiate the world. It is our job as parents to help guide and support these efforts.