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
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."
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Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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.