People say it all the time: boys will be boys. I hear it in slogans, in songs, at the playground, on the radio, in the coffee shop. It’s not uncommon to see the phrase used as a decoration in a boy’s bedroom or to hear it used with regard to grown men. But what does it actually mean? In my mind it’s akin to when someone prefaces a sentence by saying “don’t take this personal, but. . .” Because we all know that’s just code for “I’m about to say something hurtful but since I opened with don’t take it personal, I get a pass to say it anyway.” In the same way using the expression boys will be boys is often just an excuse for a man or a boy to do something thoughtless, violent, cruel or stupid.
Here’s how I’ve heard it referenced in circles surrounding my kids…
Example A: Gryffin and Isaiah are playing with a couple of other boys at the park. I don’t know these other boys or their mama. They start getting REALLY loud, whooping and hollering and roaring, pretending to be pumas and dragons and wildebeasts. Unknown mom grimaces and says “well, boys will be boys, I guess,” in an apologetic tone.
Example B: Gryffin and Isaiah are with me at a coffee shop. They are playing with some toy cars. A mother and her son come in and this unknown boy immediately picks up one of the blocks from the basket on the floor, pretends it’s a gun and commences to shout, “bang bang” and “pow pow” and what not while pointing it at G and Z. The mom turns to me, no joke, and says knowingly, “I can just see his primal warrior instincts when he gets like that,” which I think is a Seattle version of boys will be boys.
Example C: We are with a group of friends. There is a baby girl there. Both of my boys are attempting to touch her cheeks and one of them tries to give her a kiss. Everyone laughs. There are jokes about future dating possibilities and as the attempts continue, someone chuckles and says, “well, boys will be boys.”
Minor examples, really. Sometimes it’s harmless. Sometimes not. With young boys it seems to come in the form of (A) I’m embarrassed because my boy is so loud and wild, (B) I’m kind of worried because he’s playing with weapons or (C) over-sexualizing the situation.
Are my boys loud sometimes? Absolutely. Are they loud because they are boys? No, they are loud because they are Gryffin and Isaiah. They are loud because they are 3 and 5. There is no need for me to be embarrassed by their noise and I don’t (usually) need to apologize for it.
As a family of faith, our theology has informed our decisions regarding our kids and their use of play weapons, particularly guns. I don’t believe that guns and violence have any part in the inbreaking of God’s kingdom on earth. So in an effort to live proleptically, we don’t want to normalize something that is not part of the kingdom of God. While there still remains much debate about whether or not boys and girls are “hard-wired” to want to play with certain toys, I don’t think it’s innate for boys to be violent and to fashion weapons. Neither one of our boys ever pretended to play with weapons or guns until they were introduced to the idea by a neighborhood friend. They didn’t fashion swords out of sticks or make their legos into guns. It was a learned behavior. And once they learned it, we explained that our family does not even pretend to play with guns, which are only intended for harm, and both boys have taken it in stride.
When my boys touch a baby girl and try to kiss her, there are no sexual intentions involved. They are simply mimicking the behavior they have seen in me and Jason. I delight in seeing them act the ever-nurturing papa and imitating my husband in their affectionate actions. I don’t want to give them the false impression that there is some sort of sinister sexual desire simmering beneath the surface. I also want to teach them about personal boundaries because it’s important to respect another person’s space. Responding to their repeated and over-eager attempts to kiss a baby with a hearty laugh and a “boys will be boys,” wrongly teaches them that that’s just the way they are. It’s expected, even. Nothin’ you can do about it. Boys will be boys.
With older boys and men, the phrase is brought to bear when they get raucous or a little too rough; when they look a little too long at a woman; when they drink too much or they don’t help out around the house. It’s an excuse. An exoneration. It’s something to cover over boys behaving badly so that their actions are acceptable, or at the very least excusable. It’s all good. Boys will be boys. Right?
Ultimately, I think succumbing to the boys will be boys mentality is a cop-out. For young boys and grown men. It’s much easier to just chuckle and chalk things up to boys being boys than it is to go against the cultural grain and come up with something more creative to say. It takes resolve and intentionality to work through the assumptions and ingrained expectations that come with such colloquialisms and to commit ourselves to the hard work of dreaming for something better. But it will be worth the effort if we are able to teach our young boys a better way to behave instead of constantly letting them off the hook.
*This is a revision and re-writing of one of my posts from 2012