Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

Boys Will Be Boys… The Danger of Low Expectations

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“Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight.

Carry that weight a long time…”

-The Beatles, Carry That Weight

Boys are getting a bad rap.

They are being reduced to the lowest common denominator.

They are suffering the permissibility of low expectations.

They have no self control. They have violent urges. They have uncontainable sexual tendencies.

Boys will be boys.

What does this oft cited phrase even mean? Does it mean that because they were born with the Y chromosome that they are inherently impulsive and helpless to their own actions? Does it mean that it is natural for them to be more violent, more sexual?

Or is it an excuse trotted out to dismiss unsavory behavior?

Is it an antiquated notion that keeps boys boxed into a hyper-masculine role while putting the burden on girls to keep order and civility intact?

I know a few boys.

I am a sister, a wife, a mother, a daughter. I’ve been blessed with some amazing boys and men in my life. Most of the boys I have known and encountered have been sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful people. Very much in control of their own actions. Yes, I have known some jerks. But they truly are the exception in my life, not the rule.

I love men.

I always have. I grew up having more guy friends than girl friends. I sometimes felt more comfortable and at ease with my guy friends. I love masculine, strong men and I love sensitive, artistic men and I love that these traits aren’t exclusive of each other. I don’t look at men as adversaries. I don’t view them as opposition. I view them as friends, as neighbors, as fellow parents-  as people full of good and sometimes a little bad but mostly just human and trying to do their best.

Let’s stop saying it…

Let’s stop saying “Boys will be boys.” It is said when little boys fight on the play ground. Instead of breaking up the fight and teaching them that there are other ways to problem solve, some people use this phrase as an excuse. Let them get out their anger, let them blow off some steam. It’ll toughen them up. Does this not seem an antiquated notion? Doesn’t it send messages that are hard to undo? Hurt and damage young boys who don’t necessarily enjoy fighting?

Let’s stop using it as an excuse for boys to grope girls. To say demeaning things to girls. Let’s not speak this phrase to imply that boys cannot control their urges around girls. To imply that it’s natural for boys to be misogynistic. It’s not. Misogyny is taught.

Let’s stop saying it when enforcing a dress code that is mostly thrust upon girls. Shorts must be a certain length. Skirts must be a certain length. No spaghetti strap shirts. Why? The reasons I’ve heard all seem to point to a few disturbing notions. Either that little girls will be viewed as too sultry or sexual when wearing shorts or tank tops or that it will put boys in the uncomfortable and impossible position of having to control their sexual urges. They will be too distracted by the show of flesh. So girls are all sultry sirens of the sea luring poor dimwitted boys to jump in the ocean, devoid of any self control?

Let’s stop saying it when men make lewd or inappropriate comments towards women. When men make crude and laviscious cat calls at a woman walking down the street.

And, dear god, let’s stop saying it when a boy sexually assaults a girl.

‘Cause here’s the thing…

Not all boys or men do these things. These are not behaviors inherent in the male species. Not all boys are violent. Not all boys are lustful. Not all boys view girls as objects. Not all boys are distracted by an exposed shoulder or an extra inch of thigh. Not all boys want to demean girls. Not all boys believe that they have rights to a girl’s body and privacy and sense of safety.

I don’t think any boy is born with these tendencies. They will have more testosterone, yes. And surges in testosterone can lead to feelings of anger or sexual urges. (And let’s start admitting that girls have sexual urges too.)  Boys can be taught how to deal with these feelings.  They are beyond animalistic instincts to act without regard to others or themselves. They are more evolved than that. To dismiss bad behavior with “boys will be boys” implies they have no control. It implies that they are subject to their worst impulses.

It is insulting.

The line of thinking that goes along with the “boys will be boys” mentality is an insult to boys. It is just as insulting as assuming that women are uncontrollably emotional and irrational because their bodies produce more estrogen. It only teaches boys that not only is bad behavior ok, it is expected of them. That it is evidence of masculinity. This is ridiculous. You know what’s masculine? Being honest about your feelings, showing emotion. Being respectful of others. Honoring other’s rights and needs. Understanding those around you.

I believe in setting high expectations, not shrugging away boorishness.

I believe that most boys don’t want to have to fight on the playground.

I believe that boys are completely capable of self control.

I believe my son doesn’t need to “prove” his masculinity any more than my daughters need to “prove” their femininity.

I believe that boys are capable of functioning around girls, even scantily clad girls, without succumbing to hormonal fueled hysteria.

I believe that if we stop dismissing behaviors and excusing them and expecting them, that we will raise strong, masculine men who respect themselves. Who respect women. Who want to be productive and not destructive. I believe that we can raise boys who won’t grow up to grope women. To make insulting cat calls. Who won’t say misogynistic things to women, to female senators. Who won’t assume rights or ownership to a woman’s body. I know it’s possible. I know many of these men. Many of whom grew up to be great men in spite of society’s banal accommodation of “boys will be boys.”

So let’s give boys some credit. Let’s assume they are capable of the best. Let’s expect more and in doing so imply that we know that they are more than able to do more. Let’s allow them to be who they are, not what society deems as masculine.

And once and for all, let’s stop saying “Boys will be boys.”


32 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Being the Memoirs of Helena Hann-Basquiat, Dilettante and commented:
    I’ve just discovered Gretchen’s writing — I don’t know for sure whether I’ve read anything of hers before, and now I want to browse. There is a lot of harm done in our heavily patriarchal society, and the word Feminism has become the other F word in some circles — but this is a wonderful article about why boys — and men — need feminism. Gretchen never uses the F word, but this, to me, represents everything positive about feminism, and dispels the myth that women hate and fear men, and that men are animals that cannot control themselves. I’m reblogging this, which I rarely do, darlings, because I wish I’d written it. This section alone is worth repeating: “I don’t view them as opposition. I view them as friends, as neighbors, as fellow parents- as people full of good and sometimes a little bad but mostly just human and trying to do their best.”
    Do yourself a favour and drop by and read this wonderful article. Tell your girlfriends. Tell your man friends. Tell your sons, and tell your daughters. Boys WILL be boys, but how we define what is a healthy boy will determine what kind of man he will grow up to be.

  2. I enjoying reading this and digging down deep into the Boys will be boys statement. I agree with you on this. Saying that seems to be offering an excuse for bad behavior and it needs to stop.

    1. Thank you… it’s funny because it’s not something that had really been on my radar until recently. I mean, I am certainly aware of the mentality that puts the burdens on girls to not entice or to not tempt. But I read a few thing in the news this week that all went back to this type of thinking. The more I heard the “boys will be boys” excuse I started relating it to my brother and my son and my husband. All of whom are incredibly respectful and sensitive and would never and have never engaged in some of this behavior… as well as most men I know… the more it started sounding like a hollow excuse.

  3. Gretchen, you articulate my thoughts more eloquently in print than I can conceive them in my horribly scattered brain. I’m with you 100% on this. I’m sick and tired of the excuses. Boys and men alike are capable of treated people with respect and controlling their “urges.” In some circles, though, cat calls and other degrading behavior is not only acceptable, but encouraged. These behaviors are taught, not inherent.

    I don’t understand it. When I think about it I wouldn’t want anyone to ever treat my mother, step-sister, niece, or (female) that way, so it’s simple to remember that every woman is someone’s mom, sister, or daughter and should be treated as such.

    Above all, we are ALL human beings, and we are all deserving of being treated with respect. Do unto others. It’s really not difficult.

    1. Yes! It is actually encouraged in some places, at some times. I don’t understand the thought behind that?

      And I kind of liken the whole “boys will be boys” to the “stupid dad” phenomenon you see in commercials and some tv sitcoms. The blundering goofus dad/husband with the wife who is always right. (I mean, sometimes we ARE right) but this portrait of the dumb man is so insulting. And you know I write about some of the awful misogynistic things that men do to women, but I still think most men are good, smart, sensitive… you know, all the characteristics of a good person.

      I feel like I have to actively fight against the “boys will be boys” mentality with my son. I have to counter things he sees and hears. He’s a sweet, sensitive boy and would never want to raise a hand to anyone. But there’s all this pressure to “prove” that you’re manly. I don’t think he’s alone in feeling uncomfortable with some of that.

      1. My boys have succumbed to that sort of pressure at school a couple of times and those times were the harshest punishments they ever received. I have drilled into them from the time they could understand words that fighting is pointless and they are to avoid it at all costs. I told them to defend themselves if necessary, but that’s it.

        I’ve had talks with them recently due to the Elliot Roger fiasco and insured that they know it’s unacceptable to mistreat someone due to race, orientation, gender, etc. I didn’t think this was a talk I needed to have since neither their mother or I have any of those tendencies, but I was still relieved to know that they see things my way. You never know what else they’re exposed to, especially at school.

  4. Can I just stand up and clap at all that you wrote?!! Because, a number of my girlfriends were discussing this same ridiculous phrase and you just summed up exactly how we feel about it!!!

    1. Thank you! I think this phrase used to sound normal to me. I heard it so often I never really thought about it. Lately it seems like it’s being used to excuse much worse behavior. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a mom and see things differently now… To think that I summed up what you and your girlfriends were saying is terribly gratifying, thank you for letting me know that!

  5. I love the way you tackle this. No one is a slave to societal expectations. I will certainly not tolerate any kind of behavior like this from my son. Thankfully, he has a lot of wonderful male role models around him, first and foremost, his father.

    1. Yes! Boys learn how to treat women from watching how Dad treats Mom. And what Dad/Grandpa/Uncle, etc say in regards to women. We’ve even had to talk to our son (when he and his sister are fighting or if he’s picking on her) about how she is learning from him how boys and men should treat her. She looks up to him so much.

      My son watches a lot of ESPN and I am shocked at the number of issues related to this that I have to discuss with him. I always thought ESPN would be safe t.v. viewing for him, but the things some of the commentators say! Just in the last year I’ve had to cover the sexual assault allegations of Jameis Winston (and how the police and media engaged in victim shaming) and the comments made about women who are abused by their partners. Geez… When I heard my son repeating “She probably only accused him because he’s famous” I almost drove off the road. We pulled over and had a little talk right then. Anyways, I think, as with most things the parents are the most important influence.

  6. “Boys will be boys” is something lazy parents say because they can’t be bothered to raise their sons with care and attention and educate them about love, respect, and civility.

    1. Absolutely. I think it’s much easier to shrug it off and minimize the behavior. Most of the important stuff we do in parenting is the hard stuff, that’s for sure. It’s not easy to raise conscious, respectful, sensitive children these days. They are inundated with so much on-line and on t.v. I will NEVER excuse bad behavior from my children, especially when it’s a matter of belittling or disrespecting others, of any gender.

  7. This was very interesting and expresses thoughts I’ve never quite been able to articulate – I just always had a sense that people’s expectations of boys are not helpful towards creating rounded people.

    I only have daughters, though they’ve had friends who were boys and they all played together – then as they became teenagers somehow the friendships just stopped. No falling out, just they never hang out any more.

    I do completely agree with your comments about swimming – my girls were in a club for a total of about 8 years and there was not once any problems between boys and girls.

    1. I think the swim team is a great case to consider. I see all these teenagers who seem to not be phased at all by the show of skin. It’s only scandalous when we make it so.

      It’s so sad to see the friendships between the boys and girls end. I always had a larger group of friends made up of guys and girls. One of my best friends throughout high school was a boy.

      While I never thought too much about the “boys will be boys” excuse and how it may impact society, I realized as I was thinking about this and writing this that I don’t think that phrase ever crossed my lips in regards to my own son. I really try to not make excuses for bad behavior of any kind with my kids, but it really is a ridiculous phrase when you think of it as an excuse. And when you start to think over all the times you’ve heard it used… it is incredibly insulting to both the boys and anyone who may have been on the receiving end of the bad behavior.

  8. Males have society thrust unrealistic expectations and pressures on them to be real men while also lowering the expectations of them by telling us all boys will be boys. You know my take on this Gretchen, “we” downplay male aggression and the mistreatment of women as something that should not only be natural but in some cases considered a mark of strength and Alpha status. Excellent post as usual, the men in my life who have given me a tremendous amount of trouble had women encouraging this attitude and it took their toll on their sons, sadly and then their sons took out the world.We cannot as parents justify the bad behavior of our children due to gender, because what does that teach them? It teaches them to use their gender as an excuse and be blame shifters instead of responsible citizens of the world.

    1. My comments notification appears to be broken unless I go into my dashboard… You know I always appreciate your viewpoint. Probably because we think alike on most things 🙂 And yes, in some cases it’s a mark of Alpha status. I had someone else comment that it is sometimes a form of peer pressure for boys to mistreat or show their aggression. It’s sick to do that to our boys and it’s sick to do that to the people they would be expected to be aggressive to. And yes, blame shifters. Excuse makers. Enablers. All of that.

      1. It IS a status symbol, we tell boys and now girls that mistreating others and exerting your will on them is leadership and strength, who wants Alphas like Frodo the ape? It is horrifying and hurting us all. I hope you and your family are well!

  9. Gretchen, this is brilliant. I want my son to think about the things he says, the consequences of his actions toward others, and I want him to be respectful…not just of women,but everyone. At the end of the day, we are all human and deserve to be respected, regardless of gender. You have made incredibly powerful points and this just adds to the list of reasons I keep coming back. Bravo!

    1. I don’t know why I’m not getting my comment notifications? But thank you Sandy for saying that. I think it’s so important to teach our boys this. Being a boy is no excuse, the notion that it is, is just so ridiculous!

    1. Thank you! I really do love to celebrate all different aspects of men. And women. I’ve been attracted to all types and been friends with all types. They certainly aren’t as one dimensional as society would have you think, are they? (And I’m a little giddy that you stopped by)

  10. Every time I admit that I’m feminist, people start treating me like a madman, alien, enemy – and every time when I say “I’m feminist, which means I’m fighting for equality – and I’m fighting for boys’ right to cry, to be weak, to seek aid and to admit their mistakes” everyone is so shocked, because “that’s not a feminism!”

    No, that’s exactly what feminism is. I’m young and single, but I hope to find a man who will be my equal, my best friend, my soulmate and so on. I know life is hard and we’ll fight, disagree and so on – but I want him to laugh and cry, to be honest with himself, to teach our children to be themselves… I hate that being feminine, girlish is equal to being weak. I hate that masculinity is treated as something better, that boys can’t do “girlish” things, that fathers should be stern, that it’s wrong for men to be gentle and caring… That being man is something better than woman, although it means acting like caveman when it comes to sex or fighting. Because it’s not about being animals – animals usually treat their females much better than humans.

    Because really, feminism isn’t about women becoming like men. It’s about equality, about humanity, and our right to life, emotions, freedom and happiness. Nothing more and nothing less.

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