Boys will be boys... right?

Expectations of boys are outdated, restrictive, and inaccurate, writes mother of seven, Jen Hogan.

I live in a male-dominated household. Six of my seven children are boys.

Frequently, people share their views with me of how they imagine life with so many sons must play out. Sometimes, they’re right.

These perceptions include a noisy household, filled with rowdy, messy boys who eat all around them and find burps and farts hilarious. They suggest a hallway filled with muddy football boots, lots of furniture and wall scaling, and unexplained physicality and rough and tumble — because boys will be boys after all.

Countless strangers have told me that I’m lucky my girl came first — to help me manage the boys. The presumption being that my daughter assumes the role of helper, while the boys are generally incapable of doing little other than creating a mess and causing chaos.

Now I’ll be honest, my daughter is an enormous help, in the way that many eldest children are. I can appreciate this all the more being an eldest child myself.

But at 16, she is capable of assuming very different levels of responsibility to her 7-year-old brother. The role she plays in our family is down to birth order and age — not her gender.

The boys in our house are expected to pull their weight too, in an age appropriate manner. With plenty of younger siblings, the older boys recognise the needs of their younger brothers and know when silence should arouse extreme suspicion.

I’ve seen them put these skills into practice in the outside world too, helping another mother with a buggy and a toddler to get through the door of a shop, or running to the assistance of a little girl who fell off her scooter and was crying.

I’m proud to see them do these things, of course, but not surprised. They are, after all, boys — loving, kind, caring boys.

My sons adore and fight with their sister. There is nothing they believe they can do that she can’t. My football-nuts son, meanwhile, is as happy to play football with me as his dad (even if I’m not always as keen).

Their view on the world and their female counterparts is probably very much in keeping with the turning tide and rightful convictions that girls can be and can do anything they want.

Expectations of and for girls have and continue to change, and it’s a welcome change — but for young boys, the rate of change in expectations is painfully slow.

It seems boys should like “boys’ things”. You’ll hear many parents describe their daughter as a “tomboy” if she shows an interest in things that are considered stereotypically male. It’s in no way considered an insult, yet try to find the inverse and a whole load of derogatory terms will come up on your search engine.

I had a discussion with a young mother of two recently. She has both a daughter and a son. She told me that under no circumstance would she allow her son to do ballet, even if he begged. Her daughter, meanwhile, plays football. She couldn’t seem to see the irony of the situation.

I’ve witnessed it on a lesser scale too, with people passing comments on my son’s pink potty — not purchased to prove a point, rather because Peppa Pig was his favourite character and this was the potty he wanted.

I’ve been asked in the past what their father thought of Santa bringing one son a Dora the Explorer toy laptop, yet there was no inquiry about the Thomas the Tank Engine train set that Santa also brought him. I find it amusing that anyone believes my husband might not completely support Santa’s choice of gift.

My children all go to single-sex schools. It’s not a deliberate choice, more circumstance, as the local schools all happen to be single sex. Having both sexes has really hammered home the difference in expectations.

For girls there seems to be an attitude that if you’re into sport, well, that’s great; but if you’re not, well, that’s great too because there’s lots of other varied in-school and extra-curricular options available and encouraged.

For boys, however, huge emphasis is placed on sport. If you’re a boy with an interest in sport, that’s fantastic; if you’re not, well, that’s a little more difficult — because boys are supposed to like sport.

I see first-hand the huge differences that exist between my boys. Some are sporty, some are deep thinkers. Some are sensitive, some are boisterous. I have artist types too — complete with artistic temperaments.

Yet in spite of the vast differences, society still often seems to expect boys to conform to type, rather than recognising that boys are as individual to each other as girls.

Dr Trish Leonard-Curtin, counselling psychologist at Act Now Purposeful Living and co-author of the forthcoming The Power of Small, says “gender stereotypes persist to the point that we are barely even aware of just how much they influence how we relate to children and shape their behaviours, right from the get-go.

"In some cases, before the child is even born and brought home to a pink or blue nursery, we’ve started to place expectations and standards for them to live by.

“Social experiments have been conducted where they dress a baby in pink and introduce it to adults who assume that the baby is a girl. They tended to hold ‘her’ gently, describe ‘her’ with words relating to her appearance and smile, and chose a doll for her to play with.

"The researchers then take this child away, swap the pink Babygro for a blue one, and then introduce the same baby, now in blue, to the same adults. This time, the adults handled the baby more physically, likely praised ‘him’ for perceived strength or physical prowess, and chose a toy hammer for him to play with.”

Dr Leonard-Curtin explains that “whilst girls who are judged to behave more stereotypically like a boy are praised, encouraged, and admired, boys in the opposite situation lose standing”.

Explaining why some parents might not be comfortable if their son’s interests are more traditionally female, she says “unfortunately most of us, parents included, hold some unfavourable judgments about what it means to be ‘girlie’.”

Parents are often afraid that their sons will be taunted and bullied at school. Parents can also be afraid that their son will be weak or vulnerable if they engage in what they deem to be girlie behaviour.

“As psychologists we often work with adult men who share wounds they endured as a child having been shamed for “acting like a girl” or told to “act like a man”.

Dr Leonard-Curtin adds that boys can “close themselves off from certain experiences and emotions in order to avoid negative reactions from others”.

She advises being mindful of the language that is used around boys, explaining that phrases like “don’t act like such a girl” could have a detrimental effect on boys.

She recommends instead asking about the game or interest the boy enjoys as “this will give the parents and other loved ones far more valuable insight than shutting down the boy’s activities”.

“Also if you’re willing, take a look at what messages you received about things being ‘girlie’ growing up. Very often we are rehashing how our parents and others treated us in the past, even if we didn’t agree with those actions in the first place.”

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