Mark Sherman Ph.D.

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Why Can't Boys Be Boys?

Let’s accept boys who don't behave like typical boys and those who do.

Posted Feb 10, 2020

A friend was telling me about his 4-year-old grandson who, at a bookstore, wanted my friend to buy him a book in the Pinkalicious series. As the name implies, these are definitely not in the typical genre of boys’ books. My friend immediately bought it for him.

We had a similar experience with one of our grandsons, who, seeing a bunch of toys, asked for one that was very colorful and delicate-looking. “I know it’s a girl’s toy,” he said, “but I want it.” My wife and I bought it for him at once, without for one second giving him a hard time about it.

 Photo by Mark Sherman; used by permission of the manufacturer.
Source: Photo by Mark Sherman; used by permission of the manufacturer.

I am totally on board with the idea that boys shouldn’t be shamed for showing an interest in “girly” things. But they shouldn’t be shamed for showing traditional gender preferences either. And these days this is the case in many circles, as shown by the attack on the expression: “boys will be boys.”

The onslaught against “boys will be boys” goes hand in hand with the concept of “toxic masculinity.” Take a look at the 2019 APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men; the highly controversial 2019 Gillette commercial—extolling, among other things, a father breaking up a “fight” between two boys who look to be no more than five; or Peggy Orenstein’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Miseducation of the American Boy." The message is this: There is something very wrong with what has long been assumed to be typical boy behavior. 

Today many feel that this behavior – including aggressiveness, competitiveness, and stoicism– is far more a product of social conditioning than it is of nature. But there is no solid evidence for this. The most reasonable assumption is that virtually all human behavior derives from both nature and nurture. 

To be consistent for boys as a group, let’s assume that some don’t fit into the usual boy mold, and let’s be fully accepting of them; but let us be equally accepting of those boys who do fit into the classic archetype.

Myriam Miedzian in her 1991 book, Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence, wrote: "It cannot be assumed that what children were allowed, or even encouraged, to do in the past was good for them or for society. When we are told not to worry, that boys have always played with toy soldiers, guns, tanks, and bows and arrows, we must not forget that many of those same boys, when they became men, enthusiastically went off to or supported wars they knew little about, got into barroom brawls, and battered their wives and children.

What she doesn’t say is that many, probably most, of those same boys did not do any of those things as adults. I played with toy soldiers as a boy, I drew tanks and guns, and I am about as non-violent as you can get.

The saying boys will be boys does not excuse excesses of masculine behavior. The world doesn’t need bullies or sexism. But usually when I hear that expression it isn’t applied to those extremes, but rather to the kinds of behavior that most parents and grandparents of boys know all too well: the crudeness, the roughhousing, the wildness.        

But even about those behaviors, when parents or grandparents of boys say, boys will be boys, it’s rarely said with admiration or even approval, but rather a sense of loving resignation – as shown by the word that so often precedes the phrase in everyday discourse: “Well.” It’s almost never simply: boy will be boys. But rather: Well, boys will be boys. Again, this does not mean we should tolerate violent behavior.  But it does mean we should accept so-called boyish behavior. To do otherwise is to pathologize the boy who wants to read Captain Underpants while fully accepting his brother, who might be more interested in Pinkalicious

They are both boys whom society should welcome and accept.