Boys Will Be Boys


Boys and girls are different. There. I said it. Once I recognize that reality, I set out to learn about boys, and hopefully to understand my son in the process. 

The first book I encountered, Real Boys by William Pollack, uncovered what he called The Boy Code. The code requires boys to suppress their emotions and always present a confident, happy face to the world. “Everything’s fine.”

Pollack’s observation was that adults socialize boys from a very early age to adhere to The Boy Code. Very subtle indicators of approval and disapproval teach boys what the world expects from them. Expressions like “Boys will be boys” communicate how boys are expected to behave, and define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. As Pollock pointed out, this expression isn’t used when boys are giving their artwork as a gift to their mothers. It’s used to comment on impulsive, reckless behavior. By the same token, “boys can only be boys.” Adults teach the boy that he can legitimize his “boyhood” by his vigilant avoidance of anything “feminine”. 

Dr. Pollack’s premise that boys are socialized into a narrow “Boy Code” soon had its counterpart in brain-based research. It addressed the “nature” side of the “nature versus nurture” debate. As the field of neuroscience grew, so the research documenting  sex differences became more sophisticated.

“Nature vs nurture” has been an ongoing debate in the field of psychology. Is a person’s development mainly the result of genetic, predetermined factors (“nature”), or are they the result of environmental and social variables (“nurture”)? Can we change our destiny, or would we do better to understand our predispositions and work to enhance them? My own perspective, culled from academic research and my own professional experience, is that nature and nurture work together to make us who we are. So I find value in both sides of the debate, and believe we need information from both perspectives in order to understand and  work with boys.

In casual conversation, we use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, when they actually have very different meanings. Each is important to the topic at hand. The World Health Organisation summarizes the difference between sex and gender this way:

Sex refers to “the different biological and physiological characteristics of males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones, etc.”

Gender refers to “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men.” So sex is biology, and gender is social. Sex is nature; gender is nurture.

Physicians like Leonard Sax and educators like Michael Gurian offered science-based as well as classroom-based research indicating significant differences between males and females. They exist regardless of culture, because they are a function of the physical, biological differences between the sexes.

The first thing I learned was that boys and girls hear differently. My immediate reaction was that this couldn’t be true. I asked a colleague who was a speech therapist. She confirmed the fact, and indicated that all speech pathologists were aware of it. Then why didn’t I ever come across this in all my studies in clinical  and school psychology? And why didn’t any of the teachers I consulted with know about it, either?

Here’s a possible answer. When I was in graduate school (in the mid-1970s) I witnessed an event that has had long-term social impact. Virtually every psychology textbook was replaced with an updated version that had one major difference. All of the pictures that supported traditional sexual activities were replaced. Instead of a woman preparing food in the kitchen, a man was depicted in that role. Instead of a man in a hard-hat repairing a telephone line, a woman now performed that job.

These changes in the textbooks reflected the movement to empower women; the intention of these role-reversals was to demonstrate that women could do whatever men could do. They need not be limited to traditional roles and professions, like teacher, nurse, and housewife. Men generally earn more than women, and women wanted access to high paying jobs. It worked. Women are now bus drivers, astronauts, and construction workers – jobs that were considered males only prior to the 1970s.

The results were beneficial, but there have been some unexpected consequences. The push for equal access hinged on the premise that whatever a man could do, a woman could also do. Research that highlighted  differences between males and females was suspected of suggesting that they were not equal. Carolyn Mazure put it this way: “We load the concept of difference with a value judgment, but we have to let go of the concept that different means better or worse.”

In the meanwhile, the field of neuroscience, especially the study of the brain, has exploded in the past 30-40 years. We are able to understand how the brain works, and identify distinct differences between male and female brains. Researchers have determined that certain differences in brain structure are established in the womb. Other differences develop as the child grows. For example males and females use different parts of the brain when processing certain types of information. 

The field of neuroscience is offering some interesting insights into the differences between males and females. The study of gender development focuses on the ways in which males and females view themselves and the world, ways that are mostly taught through social interaction. Brain science, on the other hand, looks at the physiological differences (aside from the obvious) that distinguish males from females.

One example is how boys and girls hear. Boys do not hear high-pitched sounds as well as girls do. They may hear the sound, but not process what the sound is communicating. More than one speech pathologist has confirmed that they knew this – how many teachers do? Consider the implications in light of the fact that the vast majority of elementary school teachers are women? It is possible that boys who are considered “inattentive” are, in fact, having trouble processing their teacher’s high-pitched voice.

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