“Boys Will Be Boys” Is Harmful to Boys, Too

Author: Ashley Benedict

There’s a phrase that has re-entered the realm of social justice, and more and more people are fighting hard against it. “Boys will be boys” is something we’ve all heard once or twice (or a thousand times) throughout our lives. It’s often used to excuse the destructive and usually inappropriate behavior of young boys, and continues as a belief once these young boys reach adulthood. “Boys will be boys” has often been noted for it’s promotion of gender stereotypes and victim blaming. We tend to focus on how this mindset negatively impacts young girls and women – which is a conversation we should definitely be having. However, very rarely do we talk about the way “boys will be boys” harms young boys and men, too.

1. It Reinforces a Very Narrow Definition of Masculinity

From the moment a baby boy is born, he is given a set of expectations, just like girls are. From the clothes he wears to the toys he’s given and even to the way the people in his life interact with him, he is being socialized to fit into our society’s expectations of what boys and men should grow up to be. Examples:

“You’re such a strong boy!”

“He’s going to grow up to be a ladies man!”

We engender their clothes and toys, associating blue as masculine and pink as feminine, and raise boys and girls as though they are vastly different. Boys are given cars and bulldozers, encouraged to destroy; girls are given dolls and cooking sets, encouraged to nurture. As our boys grow up, we praise them for being active and getting dirty, and we say things like, “He’s such a boy!” which, by default, associates such behaviors as inherently masculine and boyish. Our girls hear these phrases as well, and immediately associate these things with masculinity, and may feel discouraged to engage in such ways in fear of being reprimanded for behaving less feminine.

We tell boys they’re self-sufficient, strong, solitary, and stoic. We discourage them from expressing their emotions and encourage them to be aggressive – and they internalize these ideas. They begin to view their masculinity in a very narrow scope, where they are limited in the ways they can express themselves without fearing being viewed as “unmanly.” They adhere to these ideals. In fact, many young boys report feeling anxious to prove their manliness to their peers.

This mentality shames boys who are sensitive, boys who don’t like getting dirty or wrecking things, and boys who don’t perform their gender in any other way society dictates they should.

2. It Hinders Academic Success

Ironically enough, an institution that is historically male-dominated is a place where many modern boys and young men are struggling. Recent studies show that 60% of those enrolled in college are women, and on average, women earn more degrees than men. Girls are also more likely to take AP classes in high school, while boys are more likely to drop out in high school. Why is this?

In a nutshell, we encourage our young boys to excel at brawns instead of brains, while we often do the opposite for our young girls. When asked, high school seniors said that boys are expected to do well athletically instead of in the classroom. It doesn’t help that here in America we tend to glorify male professional sports. We continue to pull young men out of their classes for games, therefore prioritizing their athletic abilities over their academic success.

The less we expect of our boys in academia, the less they will expect of themselves. This is what psychologists call “self-fulfilling prophecy.” If they view themselves as less capable, they will continue to under-perform. If our teachers neglect male students and focus only on fostering intellectual growth in female students, they are receiving the message that they are not as capable. We need to raise the bar for male students and set standards that match the ones we have for female students, otherwise, young boys and men will continue to disbelieve in their potential.

3. It Normalizes Aggression

It starts from the moment they are old enough to walk. When they enter school, that’s when it gets worse. When our young boys hit girls on the playground, we say: “That’s how little boys express their affection for little girls they like!” Boys, then, are effectively taught that they’ll hurt people, especially women, often physically, as a way to show how much they care.

When boys hit other boys, we shrug and laugh and say: “Boys will be boys!” all while teaching these boys that yes, violence is the answer to all of their problems. We condition them to believe that anger and aggression are inextricable and inescapable truths about their identities.

We instill the belief that boys are, by nature, hostile, mean, and incapable of rational thought during times of stress. They learn that “they just can’t help themselves!” or control their reactions. And honestly, even I’m offended by this mindset. Our expectations of the boys and men in our lives are too low. If we teach boys that they are unable to solve problems without resorting to violence, then it’s no surprise that many of them continue this violent behavior throughout their lives. It’s because we don’t believe they can, so they don’t believe they can either. We don’t supply them with the right tools to address their emotions in a healthy way, so they resort to the only way they’ve been taught. 

“On average, young men between the ages of ten and seventeen are four times more likely to be arrested for violent crime offenses than women in the same age range. And the effects of imprisonment are long-standing: Graduation rates drop, and the likelihood of adult incarceration spikes to 41% over their peers who have never spent time behind bars.”

We teach them that they can be rapists and violent criminals, thinly veiled monsters always on the precipice of doing something awful, if the right catalyst were to occur.

4. It Increases Suicide Risk

When we use the “boys will be boys” excuse, we don’t give boys the skills they need to deal with feelings of frustration, or to ask clearly and directly for what they need emotionally.

How does this connect with suicide?

We teach boys from a young age that it’s “not masculine” to express vulnerable emotions and label expressions such as crying as “feminine.” And we, as a society, tend to view femininity as “weakness.” There are 2 problems with this: 1) it teaches boys that femininity is bad and unacceptable, and 2) it teaches boys that they should be ashamed for feeling any emotions aside from the ones traditionally ascribed to the male identity, such as anger. (And they are taught to express this anger through violent means.)

This negatively impacts how young boys and men move through life because: 1) They are unable or unwilling to form close emotional bonds with anyone for fear of seeming unmanly, 2) this fear also keeps men from seeking help from mental health professionals, which leads to 3) an increase in self-medication and coping through the use of alcohol and drugs. The above statistics are proof enough that there is an epidemic of violent suicides among the male population, which can be attributed to hypermasculine ideals – which, yes, includes the phrase “boys will be boys.”

This avoidance of vulnerability can often leave men feeling isolated and embarrassed about these emotions. Some men have even completely lost their ability to recognize these emotions, and aren’t even aware that they have a problem and require help – that is, until it’s too late. Young boys and men are so afraid of displaying vulnerability, that they often don’t even allow themselves to exhibit sad facial expressions. They have been socially- and culturally-isolated, which, as shown above, can lead to devastating consequences.

5. It is misinformed thinking and oversimplifies the problem.

I’ve heard too many people link aggressive behavior to testosterone and “natural” or “biological” impulses. 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.” 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.

6. It limits the full expression of children and constructs gender stereotypes.

Saying “boys will be boys” teaches children that certain behaviors are exclusive to masculinity and 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. The gender similarities hypothesis states that humans are more alike on most factors than “common sense” would have you believe.

Despite these similarities, we have constructed gender stereotypes and engaged in ways of thinking that set rigid, binary rules when it comes to gender expression. Certain behaviors can influence kids to engage in more gender-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. The findings of psychological experiments have found that students underperformed in similar measures when asked to mark their gender or race on their test papers. In cases where students were not “reminded” of this group membership the students performed much better.

7. It encourages boys to abuse one another, too.

I had an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers a while back. When asked if he would ever hit a girl, he said: “No, of course not!” And I asked him why that would be. He replied with, “Because it’s wrong to hit girls.” I said, okay, and asked him, “What about guys? Is it wrong to hit other guys?” He laughed, and said no. I feigned confusion. “So, it’s okay to hit guys, but not girls?”

He interpreted this the wrong way, thinking I was implying that he should hit girls, but really, I was wondering why he thought it was okay to hit anyone at all. I was wondering why boys are socialized to physically harm one another, and view it as a normal expression of themselves. You may have heard the phrase: “violence begets violence.” And in this case, I find it to be true. If we teach our young boys that violence is okay – with anyone – then we are conditioning them to express themselves through aggressive means and expect to get away with it. We are essentially teaching them that hitting others and being aggressive is a normal behavior, when in fact, we should be reprimanding it. IN FACT, we often reprimand young boys who don’t enjoy this type of aggressive behavior, and shame them for not behaving in the way we view as inherent in all boys and men. This can be damaging to these boys, and can make them feel less secure in their non-hypermasculine-conforming identities. If we can teach our boys that it’s not okay to hit girls, why can’t we teach them that it’s not okay to hit other boys, too?

8. “Boys will be boys” excuse-making sets up a pattern of gendered perpetration and victimhood that hurts everybody.

Here it is, the big one: “Boys will be boys” contributes to rape culture.

Sexism has often led to prosecutors dropping rape cases and humiliating victim/survivors of rape and sexual assault in the process. Many rape victim/survivors have been “treated with disrespect, not informed of the status of their case, and re-victimized by the process.” For example, when a mother had asked a county attorney why the adolescent boy who had assaulted her five year-old daughter had only received two years of community service, the attorney responded, “boys will be boys.”

The case of a US warehouse worker, identified only as John Doe, went to court with claims of sexual harassment and abuse in an all-male warehouse. When he was then dismissed, he believed this was part of a retaliation for his complaints. The case was ruled in favor of the employer, as Doe was retrenched with 11 other workers. The court did find however that the language and behavior of those involved did “cross the line of social responsibility”, but they were unwilling to assist in a general rule that would make employers liable for “bad language” and “boorish” behavior, presumably because “boys will be boys”.

Source: The Guardian

This mindset not only affects victim/survivors of rape or sexual assault who are women, but those who are men as well. We don’t take men seriously when they file these types of charges; we tell them they “should have enjoyed it” and ask “why [are you] complaining? You got some, didn’t [you]?” We view rape as something that can only be committed by men on women, and not vice versa. And when rape/sexual assault occurs between two men, again, we say “boys will be boys.” We don’t seem to want to see the full scope of the damage that those four words have and the impact they have on not only rape culture, but all aspects of our lives.

Below are two powerful videos, made by a mother and a father, about the damaging effects of “Boys will be boys” and their determination to change the script:

We must admit to ourselves that this mentality we have is damaging to everyone around us. Our current vision of masculinity is toxic, and we must change it and learn to accept boys for expressing themselves in whatever way they feel comfortable – without resorting to aggression and dominance. We must communicate that masculinity is not about dominance, and that it does not exclude empathy or other vulnerable emotions. We must admit, as a society, that it’s no accident that the majority of mass murderers are men. We must deny the mindset that teaches our young boys and men to bury pieces of themselves away, otherwise, the outcomes are devastating. For women. For men. For everyone.


What do you think? Do you believe “Boys will be boys” is a damaging mentality? Why or why not? What can we do to combat this mentality and change the narrative? Where does the process begin? Let us know by sending any work, comments, or questions to gvsufeministvoices@gmail.com



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