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SOCIALIZING VIOLENCE IN BOYS:
SUGGESTIONS FOR CHANGE

by Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.

The school shootings in Atlanta, GA, Littleton, CO, and Jonesboro, AR: these are just a few of the violent incidents that occur so frequently in today's society. With so many violent acts being committed by youth, especially boys, we begin to wonder what is happening to our children. Why are our boys so violent? What child-rearing practices may contribute to these outcomes?

In contemplating causes of youth violence, much attention has been given to media violence. However, another area of research that may inform our understanding of these issues investigates the different ways that society and parents go about socializing girls and boys. In general, society has stereotyped expectations for individuals based on their sex. These expectations are often narrow, oversimplified, and quite rigid. For example, people expect boys and men to be independent, assertive, and logical, while they expect girls and women to be social, passive, and emotional. Real people, however, seldom fit neatly into these stereotypical roles. Nevertheless, adults tend to interact very differently with girls and boys because of these preconceived notions, even from the time children are born.

In an ingenious study designed to detect adults' sex-stereotyped notions about babies, researchers showed adults a videotape of an infant responding to a jack-in-the-box, among other items. Half of the adults were told that the infant was a girl, and the other half were told that the infant was a boy. The videotaped baby responded negatively to the jack-in-the box by startling and then crying. What is interesting in this study is that the adults who thought the baby was a girl interpreted the reaction as fear, while the adults who thought the baby was a boy interpreted the reaction as anger! This research demonstrates how powerful societal stereotypes are in shaping our perceptions of children, and these same stereotypes influence how we interact with children as well.

For example, a study of parents' behaviors with young children showed that parents encouraged girls' attempts to communicate, while responding negatively to girls' assertive behaviors. In contrast, parents responded positively to boys' assertive behaviors, but did not respond to boys' attempts to communicate. Other recent studies investigating parents' communication with children showed that both mothers and fathers talk more to girls than to boys and that mothers talk more about emotions with daughters than with sons. These patterns of parental interaction show that we are demonstrating to boys that communication is not appropriate for them, especially communication about emotion, while assertive behaviors are acceptable.

In fact, when boys display rough or aggressive behavior, adults often dismiss it, saying, "boys will be boys." However, adults often actively discourage similar behavior in girls. Furthermore, when boys are not aggressive and assertive, they are often ridiculed and labeled as "sissies" or "wimps." Similarly, when a boy falls and skins his knee, adults are often heard to say, "big boys don't cry," while girls do not receive the same sanctions. These differences in adult responses teach children that aggressiveness is an acceptable emotional expression -- and quite possibly the only acceptable emotional expression -- for boys.

Society's narrow views of what it means to be a male or female place limits on children that deprive them of healthy experiences. When we teach our boys that "real men" don't express emotions or talk about personal issues, we are depriving them of essential processes necessary for healthy development. Consequently, when boys experience negative feelings or are faced with difficult circumstances, the only outlet society has sanctioned for them is assertiveness or aggression. Thus, it may not be surprising that many of our adolescent boys resort to aggression when dealing with difficult issues.

So, what can we do to help counteract these negative influences on our children? First, we must be aware of our own biases and preconceived notions from the start. Even young children easily detect adult expectations and try to fulfill them. If we expect only certain behaviors such as aggression, from our sons because "boys will be boys," then these are the behaviors that we will see. We must unlearn the stereotypes and realize that "real men" are much more than the stereotype allows. Real men are human beings with a full array of emotions.

Big boys do cry -- when they have permission. Thus, we must encourage boys to feel and express their emotions. Children learn by observing others. We need to talk with our children, both girls and boys, and demonstrate to them that communication is acceptable for both sexes, and we must be flexible in our own behavior rather than conforming to stereotypical roles. Put simply, in order to provide boys opportunities for expression besides aggression and violence, we must challenge and change society's limited conception of what it means to be a "real man."

References:
Condry, J. & Condry, S. (1976). Sex differences: A study of the eye of the beholder. Child Development, 47, 812-819.
Fagot, B. I., Hagan, R. Leinbach, M. D., & Kronsberg, S. (1985). Differential reactions to assertive and communicative acts of toddler boys and girls. Child Development, 56, 1499-1505.
Flanagan, D.& Perese, S. (1998). Emotional references in mother-daughter and mother son dads' conversations about school. Sex Roles, 39, 353-367.
Leaper, C., Anderson, K. J., & Sanders, P. (1998). Moderators of gender effects on parents' talk to their children: A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 34, 3-27.
McDonald, K., & Parke, R. D. (1986). Parent-child physical play: The effects of sex and age on children and parents. Sex Roles, 15, 367-378.
Mischel, W. (1966). A social-learning view of sex differences in behavior. In E. Maccoby (Ed.), The development of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

08/02/99

Specializing in child development, Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D., is a full-time faculty member in the Psychology Department at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. Dr. Cartwright's research has focused on cognitive development, language, literacy, and gender issues.

 

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