Boys must be more than just boys

Small boy looking and smiling at camera. Image is yellow toned and there is lots of shadow across the boy's face.

Ever heard the phrase ‘boys will be boys…’? When do you hear it? What are the boys doing? Why do adults say it? Why is it only boys? What does it mean?!

‘He’s such a little man’

‘It’s a guy thing…’

‘That’s the testosterone talking…’

‘Boys will be boys’, and phrases like it, are often used to justify or excuse behaviour that we think is stereotypically ‘boyish’. It tells us that a behaviour may not be ideal, but we shouldn’t be surprised by it and, in fact, there’s probably not much we can do about it – it’s 'to be expected'.

But these phrases inadvertently send us, and our kids unhealthy messages. They tell us that:

  • Some antisocial behaviours are acceptable for boys (but not for girls).
  • Gender ‘causes’ and excuses some behaviours, and while they might not always be welcome, they should be expected and are probably unavoidable.
  • Boys who don’t behave this way are ‘less boyish’, and therefore aren’t living up to expectations.
  • Girls should put up with certain behaviours because boys ‘just can’t help themselves’.

How to challenge 'boys will be boys' when you hear it

Next time you hear these types of phrases think about how you might challenge them. Depending on the circumstance, you can:

  • Just name the behaviour, rather than ‘giving it a gender’. For example, you could say ‘Whoa, the kids are really getting into the ‘rough and tumble’ today, eh?’.
  • Or, if you’re feeling uncomfortable with how kids are playing start a conversation with other adults. For example ‘Should we go and chat to the kids about calming it down a bit?’ or check in with the kids – ‘Are you kids OK, everybody having fun?’.
  • If the behaviour is impacting negatively on others, focus on stopping the behaviour, then talk about the emotion(s) causing the behaviour. You could say, ‘I can see you throwing those sticks, and your face looks kind of angry – can you tell me why you’re feeling cross?’.
  • Provide alternative ways to process the emotion, like offering kids words to talk about the physical manifestations of emotions, such as feeling hot when angry, feeling tired when sad.
  • Notice when things are ‘assigned a gender' (by adults or kids) and point out contrary examples, for example, ‘Actually, I wasn’t at all interested in dolls as a little girl – I was all about sport and making stuff – I think all kids are different’.
  • Talk to kids about the impact of behaviour on others – for example, suggest ways your kids can show empathy, e.g. 'Do you think this might be making some other kids a bit sad or scared? How can we make them feel better?'.
  • Talk to kids about the ways they can let other kids know how they feel, for example ‘Stop, that’s making me feel angry’.

Some kids like rough play, and some kids don’t. Some kids are a more ‘mischievous’ than others – but as with most other behaviours and interests – let’s make it about kids as individuals, rather than letting stereotypes define them and dictate how they learn and grow.