“Boys will be boys”?

—Judy Y. Chu

As a parent of a 10-year-old, I have spent a fair amount of time over the past few years observing kids playing—at schools, playgrounds, and various social functions. As a researcher who studies boys’ development, I am especially inclined to tune in to what parents and teachers say about boys. And I have found that when adults talk about boys, regardless of the context or the particular group of kids, I can expect to hear someone at some point remark that, “Boys will be boys.”

Usually, this comment comes as a response to boys’ rowdy and rambunctious play, as when they are running around, being loud, acting hyper, getting into mischief, or otherwise brimming with energy. (Incidentally, no one says anything when girls display similar behaviors). Even when said in a tone of acceptance, it seems to have a negative connotation. In my experience, this comment is not meant as a celebration, as in “Hooray! Boys will be boys!” Rather, as they say this, adults will often shrug their shoulders, smile mildly, and sigh as though in resignation: “Oh well. What can you do? Boys will be boys.”

But what does it mean for boys to be boys? And why might this be something less than desirable? When we think about it, the first question almost doesn’t make sense. Of course, boys will be boys. What else would they be? But the question gains new meaning when we consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observation that in many cultures and societies, boys must prove their masculinity. Somehow it is not enough to be biologically male. Boys must prove that they are “boys” or “real” boys (and, later on, “real” men). For the most part, they do this by aligning with group and cultural norms of masculinity.

Social psychologists remind us that we tend to find what we look for and favor those things that match our expectations. So, when boys behave in ways that confirm gender stereotypes and are consistent with conventions of masculinity—that emphasize, for instance, physical activity and toughness, emotional stoicism, and projected self-sufficiency— we take notice and are prompted to conclude that, “Boys will be boys.”

Conversely, we tend to overlook or discount those things that challenge our assumptions. Although we may like to think of ourselves as being receptive to new information, most of us are more comfortable with evidence that affirms what we already know and believe. It requires extra effort to truly consider and incorporate unfamiliar ideas or ways of thinking.

This might explain why I rarely, if ever, hear people remark that “Boys will be boys” when boys are calm, quiet, gentle, kind, thoughtful, generous, and considerate. Boys certainly exhibit these qualities as well. Indeed, they are a part of boys’ (as well as girls’) humanity. Nevertheless, to the extent that these qualities are considered “feminine,” and we continue to define masculinity as the opposite of femininity, we are less likely to recognize these qualities in boys, much less count them among the attributes that confirm boys’ masculine identities.

As couples therapist Terrence Real points out, when we take all of the qualities that make us human, divide them into “masculine” and “feminine,” and decide that only males should be “masculine” and only females should be “feminine,” everyone loses. While there is no doubt that boys will be boys, it is necessary to update and expand our understanding of what it means to be a boy, including what boys are capable of knowing and doing in their relationships. We know from our experiences of the boys in our lives, as well as from research studies, that gender stereotypes may misrepresent, or represent only a fraction of, boys’ capabilities and strengths.

Although we know that there is more to boys than being “boys,” it is easy to allow stereotypes to influence how we view and respond to them. When we expect boys to be “masculine” and we focus on ways in which boys’ behaviors conform to masculine norms, it can become difficult for us to acknowledge that they are capable of anything else. At times, the notion that “Boys will be boys” can even become an excuse for doing nothing about sub-standard behavior (e.g., when boys behave dispectfully towards others or towards themselves).

To support boys’ healthy development and relationships, we need to hold them accountable to standards that exceed merely being “boys.” By moving beyond gender stereotypes, we can transform this cliché to convey greater expectations. Whether or not boys align with norms of masculine behavior, ultimately it is the qualities that make them human—such as their sense of integrity, decency, compassion, and connection to others—that will be crucial to their happiness and success.

Judy Y. Chu is Affiliated Faculty in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University and the author of When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity (NYU Press, 2014).

[Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.]