THE BLOG

The Problem with 'Boys Will Be Boys'

05/07/2013 12:22 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2013
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)
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This post was originally published in Role/Reboot.

For months, every morning when my daughter was in preschool, I watched her construct an elaborate castle out of blocks, colorful plastic discs, bits of rope, ribbons and feathers, only to have the same little boy gleefully destroy it within seconds of its completion.

It was obvious that this little guy got massive joy out of doing this. The first time, my daughter just stared in amazement and I tried to help her rebuild. Second time: sadness. Third time: The Injustice! "Why did he do that again?" Fourth time: Royally Pissed Girl wanted to know why his parent didn't stop him. And what about me? Fifth time: She was ready with some ideas about stopping him.

During the course of this socialization exercise, we tried several strategies and his parents engaged in conversation with us, but mostly me. One or the other of them would occasionally, always after the fact, smile and apologize as they whisked him away. Figuring out what they would say next became a fun game:

"You know! Boys will be boys!" 

"He's just going through a phase!"

"He's such a boy! He LOVES destroying things!"

"Oh my god! Girls and boys are SO different!"

"He. Just. Can't. Help himself!"

No matter how many times he did it, they never swooped in BEFORE the morning's live 3-D reenactment of "Invasion of AstroMonster."

I tried to teach my daughter how to stop this from happening. She asked him politely not to do it. We talked about some things she might do. She moved where she built. She stood in his way. She built a stronger foundation to the castle, so that, if he did get to it, she wouldn't have to rebuild the whole thing. In the meantime, I imagine his parents thinking, "What red-blooded boy wouldn't knock it down?"

She built a beautiful, glittery castle in a public space.

It was so tempting.

Her consent didn't matter. Besides, it's not like she made a big fuss when he knocked it down. It wasn't a "legitimate" knocking over if she didn't throw a tantrum.

His desire -- for power, destruction, control, whatever- - was understandable.

Maybe she "shouldn't have gone to preschool" at all. OR, better if she just kept her building activities to home.

I know it's a lurid metaphor, but I taught my daughter the preschool block precursor of don't "get raped" and this child, Boy #1, did not learn the preschool equivalent of "don't rape."

Not once did his parents talk to him about invading another person's space and claiming for his own purposes something that was not his to claim. Respect for my daughter and her work and words was not something he was learning. It was, to them, some kind of XY entitlement. How much of the boy's behavior in coming years would be excused in these ways, be calibrated to meet these expectations and enforce the "rules" his parents kept repeating?

There was another boy who, similarly, decided to knock down her castle one day. When he did it his mother took him in hand, explained to him that it was not his to destroy, asked him how he thought my daughter felt after working so hard on her building and walked over with him so he could apologize. That probably wasn't much fun for him, but he did not do it again.

There was a third child. He was really smart. He asked if he could knock her building down. She, beneficent ruler of all pre-circle-time castle construction, said yes... but only after she was done building it and said it was OK. They worked out a plan together and eventually he started building things with her and they would both knock the thing down with unadulterated joy. You can't make this stuff up.

Take each of these three boys and consider what he might do when he's older, say, at college, drunk at a party, mad at an ex-girlfriend who rebuffs him and uses words that she expects will be meaningful and respecte, "No, I don't want to. Stop. Leave."

Based on Boy #1's parents blanket gender essentialisms and explanations, my daughter and the kids around her could easily have come to the conclusion that all boys went through this phase, are so different from girls, cannot control themselves, and love destroying things. But, that's not the case. Some do. Some don't. There are also lots of girls who are very interested in ripping things apart systematically.

I have one of those, too. "Destructo Girl" was our nickname for this daughter. Given the slightest opportunity,she would grab whatever toy either of her sisters was playing with and run, giddy with power, to the top of a landing only to dash whatever was in her hand down two flights of stairs. She beamed with joy as it clattered and shattered. But, we figured just because she could do it, didn't mean she should and eventually she understood that, even if she wanted to and it was fun, she couldn't continue to violate her sisters' rights as citizens of our household.

"Girls will be girls?" I don't think so. Nor do we say things like, "She just can't help herself." I have heard parents of daughters so inclined say things like, "She's just so rambunctious!" But, in my experience, most people assume girls, as a class, can control themselves better, faster, more completely, and that boys have a harder time. There are many studies that indicate the reasons why this might be true, including the fact that we teach girls to delay gratification more and also to put their needs last. But, it does not appear to be innate.

Boy #1? Yes, maybe he had impulse control issues. Maybe it would take a lot of time to teach him about self-control, like Daughter #2. Maybe it would take even longer to teach him about personal boundaries and other people's rights. Maybe he had genuine problems with all of those things that needed to be addressed in more thorough ways than morning time social interactions.

But that boy -- and many others like him -- never got the benefit of the doubt. This behavior gets rewarded or not, amplified or not, sanctioned tacitly or not. Both on individual and cultural levels. To be clear: I'm not saying that there is causality between knocking down blocks in preschool and assaulting people later. I am not saying that all boys with bad manners, poor impulse control, ADHD or other behavioral issues will be rapists or abuse spouses. I'm saying the world would be a different kind of place if children were taught to respect other children's rights from the start. Rights to be, to do, to look certain ways and not others. And that teaching children these things has profound implications for society. Anyone who has studied or worked in the field of domestic violence can tell you that the "overarching attitudinal characteristic" of abusive men is entitlement and the belief that they have rights without responsibility to or respect for others. Similar attitudes feed our steady stream of sexual assault and rape.

In general, I'm a strict non-interventionist when it comes to other people's children, unless I am explicitly responsible for them and their safety. But, one morning, when it really became clear that Boy #1's parents were utterly useless as people who could teach their son to be aware of others, empathetic and yes, kinder, I picked him up and moved him away from my daughter. I asked him gently if he understood the word "forever." He said yes. Putting him down, I added that he was to stay away from my daughter and her castles for that length of time. So far, so good.