A New View on Boys & Fighting

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Photo by Collin Key via Flickr
Photo by Collin Key via Flickr

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a boy, and I’ve never been a boy. I write from the perspective of a mom of four boys, from the perspective of a mom who sees and understands and is sympathetic to the challenges boys face in today’s society. It was my boys (and their father) who first taught me about the innate and important role fighting plays in the world of boys, who sensitized me to the fact that “aggression is also an important part of socialization, at least for males.”

Thanks to my boys, I’ve long questioned the wisdom of punishing boys (and girls) who fight back against bullies. I’ve wondered, here and elsewhere, if it’s ever OK for boys to fight back. And, of course, I’ve been challenged to practice what I preach. (As I wrote after one of my boys received a suspension for fighting back, “Parenting boys is much harder than writing about parenting boys.”)

Yet I will never understand, from the inside out, the role fighting plays in the world of boys. That’s why I’m glad a male reader recently sent me a link to his blog post, “Why Not Just Let Them Fight?” He writes:

I do wonder why [it] seems like everyone is so surprised at boys and men under-performing in comparisons to women. You don’t need to worry about us, we’re fine, just stop expecting us to behave like girls! We’re not the same! It hinders our development…

…I think the main lesson we endeavour to learn during the years we happen to spend at school (which opens up a lively debate about cause and effect) is ultimately how to provoke, engage and last in conflict with parties just as strong or even stronger than us. How far we can go with whom. How to tell the weak from the strong. And what happens if we lose. What that feels like. The pain. We need to find our place in the world. And form the foundation of what will later become our sense of self assurance.

Consequently we seek conflict with authority, as well as among each other.

Huh. As a mom of boys, I’m intrigued by his comments. School, he says, is all about conflict and engagement, at least for boys. Boys, he says, spend the bulk of their school years figuring out where they stand in the pecking order. Figuring out how to engage with people both above and below. Figuring out how and when to engage in conflicts.

Hmmm.

He didn’t say anything about academics. But what he says resonates with me, because it is what I see and hear in my household on a daily basis. From the time they were little, I have watched my boys tussle; at times, the tussling brought to mind baby lion cubs, wrestling to determine ultimate dominance. Now that they’re older, their tussling is more verbal — carefully aimed barbs vs. random throw-downs –but the provoking and engaging in conflict continues.

And maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this idea, the idea that engaging in conflict is an essential part of boy development. Maybe it’s even part of why boys historically have grown into men who have dominated the business and political worlds.Certainly, old-fashioned sexism and limited opportunities for women have played a role as well. But isn’t it possible that the years boys spend learning how to engage in conflict serve them well in the workforce? (Especially when contrasted with the fact that females have historically been socialized to avoid conflict?)

The blog author writes:

To suppress this instinct may in the short term very well lead to a more orderly conduct, yet a ‘zero tolerance’ approach is and has always been a cheap, selfish and populist piece of politics which will inevitably lead to a generation of mostly confused men who happen to be frustrated for a reason they can’t even remember. The foundation for their self assurance, their identity, has been taken away. They have been taught to not trust their instincts from an early age.

Could this be a part of what is going on in society today? Part of why boys and men feel so alienated, so adrift?

I’m not sure, but I think the questions are worth pondering. I also think we should listen when boys and men take the time to tell us about their internal worlds and experiences.

What do you think? Is fighting and engaging in conflict an essential part of the healthy development of boys?

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