Boys will be boys. True.
Girls will be girls. True as well.
Kids will be kids. True again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these ideas recently, most likely because so much recent media attention has focused on hazing and bullying incidents in schools across the country. At the moment, two highly regarded school districts near my practice are dealing with hazing scandals. So often, when I read or hear news accounts about incidents such as these, a school administrator or parent or teacher or coach resorts to one of the above statements to explain, or perhaps even to excuse, inappropriate behavior.
I’ll be honest; I’ve made the statements above on occasion. Not too long ago, I worked with a mischievous little boy who had a true knack for finding creative ways to wreak havoc. In a session during which his mom recounted how he used shaving cream and toothpaste to paint the walls, floor, and mirrors of a bathroom, I remember answering her question about why an 8-year-old boy would do such a thing with “8 year olds will be 8 year olds.”
I have decided to work really hard to eliminate comments of this type from my language. Think about what these comments really mean. When a group of high school soccer players dangles new team members by their underwear in a hazing ritual known as “ripping,” and the adults in their lives say, “Boys will be boys,” those adults are implying that this is normal behavior for teenage boys, that humiliating others is just part of being male. Do we really want to sell boys short like that? Do we actually expect so little of them?
When an 8th grade girl posts a series of mean comments about a classmate on Instagram, comments such as, “Everybody in school thinks you should just kill yourself,” and the school’s administrative team tells both sets of parents that “this is the kind of thing girls in middle school do,” an essential opportunity for learning is lost. The bully gets the message that her behavior is okay, and the target gets the message that she does not matter. As adults, do we truly want girls to believe that cruelty is part of being female? Do we want girls to believe we think so little of their gender? Do we want them to think so little of themselves?
Whether it be serious negative behaviors such as hazing, bullying, underage drinking, etc. or milder forms of mischief such as toilet-papering a friend’s front yard or copying a classmate’s homework, what young people need to hear is quite different from “kids will be kids.” Nor will judging and shaming be constructive. Instead, misbehaving children need to hear questions that help them reflect on their negative behavior. Here are some of the questions I ask my young clients when I want to spark a soul-searching conversation:
- What kind of boy/man/girl/woman/person/community member/friend/student/daughter/son/adult/etc. do you want to be?
- Is this behavior (bullying, hazing, cheating, vandalizing, etc.) consistent with who you are? With who you want to be?
- What does this behavior mean about you?
- What does this behavior tell others about you?
When a child or adolescent client feels embarrassed, guilty, and/or ashamed about his or her behavior, I still avoid the “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls” platitudes. Instead, I say something like, “Kids your age do dumb/mean/inappropriate things sometimes. They make mistakes, and they learn from them. This is an opportunity for learning. Don’t waste it.”
If you ever find yourself as a parent having to deal with the kinds of serious misbehavior I’ve been reading about in my local newspaper recently or the less newsworthy, more mundane misbehavior commonly perpetrated by children and teens (and what parent doesn’t?), have enough respect for your child not to dismiss the misbehavior by attributing it to gender or youth. Ask the kinds of questions that make him or her reflect on the behavior and on what kind of person he or she wants to be. And then leave your child with this final message:“I know you are better than that.”