A recent article calls attention to the way misbehavior on the part of adult men is characterized and dismissed as simply youthful behavior. After all, they are just boys, which makes the behavior innocent, or harmless.
This is interesting on two counts. One, is the idea that misbehavior – or worse – is excusable if grown men are characterized as boys. The second, is that in reality the misbehavior of young boys is in no way considered acceptable when boys really are young. In fact, such behavior usually has consequences, the least of which being adult disapproval.
This is particularly apparent in school settings where little girls tend to set the standard for behavior that little boys are then expected to live up to. They can’t! It takes so much energy for any young child to sit still, but differences in development make it easier for girls than for boys. And there are differences!
Sex differences in behavior have been observed as early as the beginning of social play at two or two and a half years of age. Most moms even see differences much earlier than that. Differences in aggression between boys and girls have been noted in all cultures. Boys tend to be more active, competitive and dominant. In groups, they stimulate one another to increased activity and pretend fighting.
But when boys have difficulty managing their bodies, in other words when they are acting like boys, they are often considered a discipline problem. This is especially true in the classroom, where girls are generally more compliant and at least appear to be more accepting of the teacher’s directions. Of course, they, too, can be aggressive but in less obvious ways.
It is true that young children in particular, who are still learning how to be social beings, often express their feelings in behavior that is not acceptable, like hitting, grabbing, biting or screaming. This kind of primitive behavior can be scary to adults because we sometimes find ourselves hitting or screaming back – or at least feeling as though we might.
This makes us want to control the behavior – to make it disappear – instead of seeing it as a process of learning: for children, learning how to express themselves in more acceptable ways, for parents and teachers learning how to co-opt the aggression for constructive purposes. Because aggression also is part of curiosity, exploring the world, trying new things, in short, asserting oneself in positive ways.
Because boys are naturally more aggressive and have a higher activity level they can seem like a management problem – if expectations are unrealistic. Then they are too readily labeled, not only as bad, but as being hyperactive or having attention deficits. While it is true that more boys than girls are actually found to have such problems, nine times as many boys are referred for help on this basis.
The point is that we are hardly accepting or dismissive of boys’ behavior when it makes life difficult for teachers or parents. Yet the fact is that the behavior itself has a different meaning for young boys than for grown men. Understanding behavior as part of development can enable us to respond to it appropriately. An appropriate response to such behavior should be quite different for an adult.
A significant aspect of development is the ability to have control over one’s body, and to behave in socially acceptable way. This is accomplished through maturity, learning, and the guidance and support of parents and teachers. Hopefully, children are able to learn how to channel their aggression and activity level into successful pursuits.
Boys will be boys – when they are boys.