Boys will be boys

How many times have we said, when looking at our boys jumping around, wrestling on the grass, or shouting at each other to do something, “Oh, well, boys will be boys.” We understand that the behavior is typical of boys, that no one taught them to do it, and it usually does not end well if you try to get them to stop. Not everyone sees this the same way.

two boys scuffling in an illustration by Frances Tipton
Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
by Frances Tipton Hunter

A new article just came out acknowledging that preschool teachers are very likely to respond to behavior in both boys and girls by remarking in some way that the behavior is gender typical. The author of this article, Heidi Gansen, believes that this approach is part of the reason that children’s behavior differs by gender. She believes that if preschool teachers responded to children more neutrally that children might be able to shape their identities less gender specifically.

To which I say, “Hmmmm.“

I’m of two minds about this study – as I frequently am when responding to research that correctly reports on gendered behavior in the classroom, but then goes on to make illogical conclusions based on the data. There’s no question that teachers respond to boys and girls differently. There’s a lot of data to this effect. One of the earliest studies that informed my thinking on this subject pointed out that in a middle school classroom, teachers were likely to believe that the smallest child was less academically capable. In a middle school classroom, the smallest child will likely be a boy because boys begin their growth spurts later than girls. This belief about physically small students supported the notion that teachers believed that boys were less academically capable than girls, even though that might not be true. Another early study found that kindergarten teachers were more likely to discipline boys than girls even though the children were misbehaving in the same way.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I repeatedly recommend that if your son comes home from school complaining that his teacher is mean to him, you should take him seriously. However, your son does need to learn to fight his own battles and to manage failure on his own – you’re just there to teach him some skills. Your job is not to step in and lecture the teacher about how she treats your son. Don’t fight your son’s battles – failure helps a boy learn to succeed.

Here’s the problem: the researcher is right that teachers – and not just preschool teachers – treat boys and girls differently. Girls frequently complain that boys get away with bad behavior because teachers are tired of trying to discipline them. Boys complain that girls get away with bad behavior because teachers either don’t hear them or won’t believe that girls are responsible. It is difficult to treat all children exactly the same, and I know I’m guilty of this myself, although I rarely err over a gender difference. I’m more lenient with kids who show an obvious interest in my subject matter, and I know that is true and totally not fair.

However, this study makes the mistake of believing that the gendered behavior is either the result of the way the teacher treats the children or is exacerbated by the teacher’s treatment of the students. I know the first isn’t true, we see gendered behavior in children from birth. While the second may be true, I doubt that boys are likely to be encouraged to misbehave by the teacher who says, “boys will be boys.” Ask any boy in any classroom, he’ll tell you that boys get into trouble more often, and they know exactly which behavior catches the teacher’s attention. The point is that much of their behavior identified by teachers as problematic results from not having enough physical movement time in the classroom, or from boredom.

Boys simply need more to do.

Teachers will complain that there is plenty for boys to do in the classroom, but they refuse to work. Give them something they are interested in and they’ll work hard, and be quiet about it as well. I never had any misbehavior in my science classroom, but then I had the students working with fire and chemicals that were slightly dangerous, or they were dissecting frogs. Visit a math classroom – as long as the students are working, boys will be hard at it. The point: boys need something to do. If there’s nothing to do, they’ll turn to each other and start wrestling or talking with each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said many times that I am in awe of kindergarten teachers. I have no clue how they keep order in a classroom with that many children whose developmental levels are that variable. I think what Gansen missed was not that teachers were condoning boys’ misbehavior, but that they were pointing out that the behavior in question was typical and not worth the teacher’s time to engage with. Should all children be held to the same standards of behavior? Probably, but that’s not true in life so why should it be true in a classroom? Yes, boys need to learn to behave, but in preschool, many boys will be developing later than girls, and teachers need to understand that.

“Boys will be boys” behavior is an invitation to get students – both boys and girls, but particularly the boys – involved in physical activity, in preschool and beyond.