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The Problem With 'Boys Will Be Boys'

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It's a phrase that always gets my hackles up. I hear it often as a pediatrician, while a toddler is climbing all around the exam room, grabbing my stethoscope or poking at my computer. I hear it often as a parent at the playground, while a child is running up the slide as kids are trying to go down it, or while he's throwing sand in the sandbox or otherwise being rough or disruptive.

"Boys will be boys."

No. Stop. Now.

I don't disagree that there are differences between boys and girls, and that it's possible for brains to be wired differently. But it's not just brains or chromosomes that define behavior. Parenting does too.

If a girl does the same thing in my exam room or at the playground, chances are that a caregiver will react. Not always--there are exceptions on both sides, of course. But being well-behaved is generally the cultural norm and expectation for girls, whereas being active and unruly is fine for boys.

At first pass, this seems unfair to girls. But actually, it's unfair to boys.

The other day in church, there was a preschooler in the pew in front of us (a girl, actually) who was behaving rather badly--sliding up and down the pew on her back, jumping off the pew and otherwise causing mini-mayhem. Her parents shushed her but otherwise didn't react. My daughter's response on the way out was interesting. "That wasn't fair to her," Natasha said. "She won't learn how she's supposed to behave in a place like church."

Bingo.

As a pediatrician, I get to watch lots of kids grow up. Some of those unruly boys do just fine. But others get into trouble as they enter the wider world of school and sports teams and afterschool programs. And at that point, the parents are playing catch-up on discipline, which doesn't always work--because: A. the kid is confused as to why he can't do something he has always done; and B. the kid doesn't take the parents seriously.

It's not just getting in trouble at school. A recent study showed that people who had trouble with self-control as children were more likely to end up unemployed as adults. These aren't just playground skills, they are life skills.

So please, parents, don't slip into the "he's such a boy" mentality. Teach your sons and daughters that no means no, that rules are there for a reason, that aggression isn't okay, that politeness and kindness matter.

It's an investment in their future.

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