In my newsfeed recently I have seen articles about why women shouldn’t wear leggings or yoga pants, both satirical and not, and others about fraternity culture. These articles have focused on expectations, and some of the non-satirical ones, have suggested that “men will be men” and that women should not expect men to control themselves or act with propriety. In short, the premise is that because men cannot be expected to act a certain way, women should change their actions.
I am not writing about yoga pants, but I am interested in expectations. Because to me, “boys will be boys” is often a younger version of the same thing. I will acknowledge that, with most things, there is a continuum to this, but let me just say I’ve never heard “boys will be boys” used to describe a male child helping his family clean up after dinner or doing his homework. I instead hear it used when a male child disobeys, plays rough, or acts out in class. Which translates to me as an oblique way of saying, “this child has a tendency toward disobedience, and we’ve not figured out how (or have stopped trying) to discipline him for it.” So in many ways they are words of defeat or a cry for help. Because the thing is, don’t all children have a tendency to disobey to some degree to another?
Now granted, I was that child where you could say, “I’m disappointed in you” and I would feel guilty for days. I understand all children are different, but I’m suggesting that what shouldn’t differ from child to child is our expectations for them to live within healthy boundaries. It’s again about expectations.
You see, research into expectations shows some really interesting things. Our expectations about a child actually effect that child’s actions. Research in the 1970s led by Ray Rist showed that teachers expectations of their pupils, from past reports, meeting their parents, how they dressed, but not any test of their academic performance, affected how well they thought those students would do in school. Which in turn affected how they interacted with those students. In summary, teachers’ created a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the students they thought wouldn’t do well, regardless of intelligence, didn’t do as well. Studies of expectations have even been shown to have an effect on rats. A man named Robert Rosenthal did a study where he went into his lab and labeled some cages of rats as smart rats and some as dumb rats. In fact, they were all just rats. Then his students ran their rats through mazes and tasks. The results seemed almost crazy in that the “smart” rats did almost twice as well as the “dumb” rats, even though they were all just rats. It turned out that the students’ expectations affected how they interacted with the rats in all sorts of small ways. They touched the rat more gently, felt more warmly toward the rat, and in turn, the rat preformed better.
Now I’m not trying to compare children to lab rats. I just think that this study does a fantastic job of pointing out how our expectations come through in small, almost unperceivable actions, and how those actions in turn shape our overall behavior.
So, back to boys being boys. There are behaviors that society has come to expect from boys as ‘natural’ without thinking about how we as parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. might be reinforcing said behavior. If, when a girl pushes another little girl she is disciplined, but when a little boy pushes another little boy it gets shrugged off as just being a boy, we are reinforcing that stereotype. This is undervaluing how boys can behave with boundaries and good discipline. If our expectations can shape our interactions with children, then I would hope that my expectations would be setting up both boy and girl children for success, problem solving skills, and understanding good boundaries.
It should be “children will be children.” Children will be children means yeah, they’re going to push boundaries, test caregivers, learn about their environment sometimes in unsafe or unhelpful ways. That’s when we as caregivers can choose to step in to guide and teach, not step back to give up or shrug it off. Children will be children means that both boys and girls need play and movement and outdoor air. Not just boys get dirty and not just boys test the limits of their caregivers’ knowledge and patience.
I think my parting thought is this – what expectations do you have for yourself as a parent or caregiver? Is “boys will be boys” covering for feeling like you don’t have a mastery of disciplining your child or don’t know what to do when he disobeys? In which case, I might suggest that you think about the inner conversations you have about how capable you are as a mom, dad, or caregiver. So instead of saying “boys will be boys” what if we build a safe community to try discipline and boundaries even when it can look messy from the outside. What if we ask for help and suggestions while realizing that doesn’t make you less capable as a parent. It means you’re using your resources. Because if children will be children, I have also seen that parents will be parents — who want what’s best for their children, and don’t want to have low expectations, but sometimes run out of ideas or energy and wonder if their child can actually change. So my challenge might be, instead of saying “boys will be boys” to have the courage and the faith in yourself as a parent and in your child as a being full of potential, to try something new or ask for help, or at least just state the honesty of the situation that this is behavior y’all are working on, knowing that you, and they, have the potential for growth and change.