“Something unexpected happened…”
That’s the lead-up to this CBS New story about a middle school boy who befriended a 5 year old with autism:
It’s supposed to be a simple feel-good story, the kind the news feeds us every now and then to remind us that all is not lost and that there is still some good in the world. But the subtext of this story — & the only reason this story works as “news” at all — is the prevailing cultural assumption that middle school boys are bad.
That assumption is what fuels the story. The mom of the younger boy was prepared to swoop up her son when she saw a group of older boys descend on the skate park, and I understand her fear. I too used to be a mom of young boys; I too used to cringe when I’d see older boys arrive at indoor playgrounds or outdoor play spaces. My perspective shifted, though, when my boys became the older boys who simply still wanted to play on the equipment. Sometimes, I’d see fear and hesitation in the eyes of other mothers’ at the play park, moms who worried that my older boys would somehow hurt or negatively influence their preschoolers and toddlers. I tried to make eye contact with those parents; when I succeeded, I talked with them, hoping they’d relax and realize my boys were not a threat.
But this idea — “boys are a threat” — is prevalent in our society and influences so much of our behavior. I bought into that belief for years. It’s why I’d cross the street whenever I saw a group of teenage boys approaching.
That belief is woven throughout the “feel-good” story above. When the narrator says, “The only surprise was that Gavin didn’t start trouble,” what’s left unspoken is that everyone EXPECTED the boys to behave badly.
As a parent of tween and teenage boys, I’ll be among the first to tell you that tween and teen boys are complicated creatures. In fact, in one of my most popular posts, The Truth about Parenting Teenage Boys, I wrote, “yes, 14-year-old boys can be assholes.” I stand by that statement.
But the key word in that sentence is “can.” Teenage boys can be assholes. They can also be incredibly compassionate, kind and funny. However, when we see a teenage boy, we are much quicker to assume he’s trouble than we are to assume he’s kind or compassionate and THAT is a problem.
Children, it’s said, live up our expectations, and we see examples of that truth all around us. Often, children who do well in spite of challenging circumstances do so because someone — a teacher, a parent — believed in them, saw the best in them despite everything.
Can we please offer our boys that same grace? The cultural messaging that tells us “boys are bad” is everywhere, and frankly, it’s gotten louder in recent years as we’ve begun to grapple with the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. This is the culture our boys are growing up in: One that expects them to behave badly and reacts with surprise when a group of boys behave admirably.
Imagine the toll that takes on a boy’s psyche. Think, for a minute, what it must be like to move through the world knowing that most people consider you a potential threat.
I’m glad the boys’ actions are being recognized; psychology tells us we can encourage good behavior by noticing and rewarding it when it occurs. But when people assume teenage boys are trouble, they shy away from contact with them. And when people expect bad behavior from boys, they’re more likely to see it & impose sanctions, even if the behavior in question isn’t really problematic. (Example A: Boys are far more likely than girls to be suspended and expelled from preschool because their active behavior is interpreted as disruptive vs. inquisitive.)
What our boys need, though, is more, not less, connection and contact. They need more people who believe in them, who see their potential and help them develop their skills and talents.
It takes deliberate effort to break down culturally reinforced stereotypes. Let’s work together to destroy negative assumptions about boys and men. Let’s stop assuming boys are bad, and make an effort to see and appreciate the humans who stand before us.