The Problem With "Boys Will Be Boys"
How It Ends Up Hurting Women AndMen
The phrase "boys will be boys" makes my blood boil. But I realized when I sat down to write this piece that I didn't know exactly why.
Was it because it's so often used as an excuse for poor behavior?
À la when a little boy punches another little boy on the playground and his mom chuckles, "Boys will be boys!"
Or worse yet, when a Supreme Court nominee is accused of sexual assault, and half of the adult population collectively rolls their eyes and says, "He was just a kid… boys will be boys, after all."
These are the more sinister applications of "boys will be boys" – the ones that reflect our society's tendency to forgive men's bad behavior because we believe it's somehow hardcoded in their DNA.
Don't get me wrong, I hate that we do this. I hate that we're so quick to accept that 50% of the population is simply wired to be aggressive and that therefore we shouldn't expect more of them.
But this isn't why the phrase "boys will be boys" makes my blood boil.
It makes my blood boil because it's society's way of using a cute, seemingly innocuous phrase to remind us all that men and women are inherently different. To reinforce the assumption that boys are wired to be a certain way, and therefore will be that way - no matter what.
When this cute little phrase is used to defend cute little activities, I find it's at its most dangerous.
In researching this piece, I came across an article by a mom defending her use of the phrase. In her words:
I'm pretty sure that whoever first said, "Boys will be boys," didn't mean it as an excuse for us to turn the other way when a woman is sexually assaulted….
On the contrary, I'm fairly certain that these words were originally intended in the most innocent of ways.
The truth is, as a mom of two young boys, I see this old adage being a part of my vocabulary for many, many years to come.
"Boys will be boys," is what I say as I watch my sons wrestling wildly on the couch with their Daddy before bedtime, while I try in vain to get them to wind down for the night.
It's what I mutter when I go to do the laundry and a pound of dirt falls out of the pockets of three pairs of scuffed up jeans.
It's what I'll let out in a startled scream on the day that one of my sons inevitably brings some sort of unwelcome critter into the house and asks if he can keep it for a pet.
Even she is aware of the intended innocence of the phrase. But what is innocent about purporting that there is only one acceptable way to be a boy? What is innocent about perpetuating the assumption that there is something inherently masculine about being curious, about wanting to go outside to play and explore?
Would girls not also bring critters home and show up with scuffed up jeans if we didn't admonish them so frequently to "be careful," and dress them in clothes that aren't very good for playing in?
As a girl who grew up playing outside each day after school, digging up worms and climbing trees, I've always resented the idea that my interests were somehow meant for boys. That I was doing something wrong or abnormal.
With "boys will be boys" comes the assumptions that "boys will not be girls" and "girls will not be boys."
Meaning that if a boy displays feminine traits or interests, parents panic and refuse to buy him the Barbie doll he fell in love with at Target.
And that if a girl displays a propensity for pranks, or a love of fighting or competing, then she must be a "tomboy," not merely a girl exploring her interests.
"Boys will be boys" hurts boys and girls because it implies that there's one way to be a boy, and one way to be a girl. Later on, it implies that there's one way to be a man, one way to be a woman, and no overlap in between.
It genders traits, interests, and behaviors that need not be masculine or feminine.
Strong. Assertive. Violent.
Nurturing. Weak. Organized.
We all know which set of words is associated with which gender. But men can be nurturing, and women can be assertive. And men and women can both learn not to be violent.
We use "boys will be boys" as an excuse when something really requires an apology, but no one says "girls will be girls" because it as an implicit expectation that girls will act like "ladies."
If your six-year-old daughter washes her plate after dinner, "girls will be girls!" doesn't really roll off the tongue the same way "boys will be boys" does when your seven-year-old son comes home with his shoes covered in mud and tracks it all through the house.
We expect girls to be kind, conscientious, and well-organized, and we teach them these lessons by chastising them every time they yell too loudly or run too quickly through the house.
We raise our boys and girls differently. We don't think twice when we have a gender-reveal party filled with ballerinas and pink cupcakes. Or when we buy girls dolls and boys legos for their birthdays. Or when we tell our nieces that they're pretty and our nephews that they're funny.
And slowly but surely, we manage to teach boys and girls that there is a right and a wrong way to act. And both groups face backlash when they deviate from prescribed gender stereotypes.
Whether it's a young boy who is teased for wanting to play house, or a girl who is called bossy when she asserts herself on the playground, we are implicitly telling them that there is something wrong with these desires.
We teach young boys confidence and risk-taking, and we reward them for it. And we teach girls conscientiousness and people-pleasing, and we reward them for it too. With straight A's and praise…. right up until they join the workforce.
Then things go a little haywire. When girls join the workforce, a male-dominated and male-built institution that heavily values the male characteristics we've historically dissuaded girls from displaying – assertiveness, confidence, risk-taking – they struggle.
At work, "boys are boys," and they're rewarded for it, and women are left trying to navigate the double bind.
They know that if they don't ask for a promotion like their male peers, they might not get one, but if they do ask… they could be reprimanded.
And then we all scratch our heads, asking ourselves, why don't more women ask for raises?Why don't women speak up in meetings? Why are there so few women relative to men in the C-suite?
Sure, there are biological differences between men and women. But there are very few meaningful ones between prepubescent boys and girls.
We teach children more than we know, and inequality in the workforce starts with "boys will be boys" and a million other "innocent" phrases that perpetuate implicit gender bias.
"Boys will be boys" turns into "men will be men," and that's not good for anyone.