The old phrase, “boys will be boys,” usually means that there is a limit to the controls parents can exert over their sons. It implies that, no matter what a mom or dad does, boys will just do bad things and this is part of the experience of parenting sons. “Boys will be boys” is often said with a smile and shrug. What are ya gonna do? He’s a boy!
But stop and consider what this actually means. It sends two messages, first that boys are expected to misbehave and, second, that girls are expected to not misbehave. It suggests that a boy can “get away with it” more frequently than a girl can and that a normal boy should misbehave just to demonstrate how much of a boy he is. Parents look the other way, because misbehavior is correct behavior for boys.
There’s a double standard here: different expectations for boys than for girls. This is unfair to girls, who are punished for the same things that boys are allowed to do. It’s unfair to well-behaved boys, who follow the rules but are then considered odd. And, of course, it’s unfair to boys who misbehave, who understand their parents expect them to be troublesome but who then get in trouble at school or in the neighborhood.
What message are you sending to your boy? Do you look the other way when your boy violates house rules? Do you make excuses for him? Do you tell your friends about the crazy things your boy does, not with a sense of worry but with a sense of humor?
Actions speak louder than words. How parents react to children’s behavior matters more than the rules they set. It’s not enough to have careful household rules and clear expectations for children’s conduct. What really matters is what happens when a rule is broken, and whether what happens depends on the sex of the child.
Sometimes different expectations for boys compared to girls are justified on the basis of sex-related differences in brain development. It is true that the prefrontal cortex, the center of critical thinking and good judgment, develops more slowly in adolescent boys than in adolescent girls. But younger children are all at the same level of incomplete development; there’s no reason to make excuses for boys and not for girls. Even among older adolescents, equal expectations are important: the only way boys’ brains can develop the capacity for clear thinking is if they need to employ clear thinking.
Help your children grow into responsible teens and adults.
- Have clear expectations for children’s behavior, equally for both boys and girls.
- Be consistent in applying sanctions for misbehavior, equally for both boys and girls.
- Avoid making excuses for a child based on his or her sex.
- Reject gender stereotypes for behavior, since these set your child up for problems with the law.
Certainly, parents should make allowances for children’s behavior based on their age. Learning to act responsibly is a process that takes time. There’s a reason why children are under their parents’ care for 18 years. Naturally, parents should guide their children’s behavior and not harshly punish girls or boys.
But it makes no sense to permit boys more latitude in their behavior than girls, or to send children mixed messages about what behavior is prohibited compared to what behavior is actually encouraged.
Instead of “boys will be boys,” think “children will be childish.” Help both boys and girls to become more mature.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.