Should educators let boys be boys?

As the father of three daughters, I sometimes forget how little boys play. My girls spend their free time acting out complex dramas, pretending to be strict teachers (with hearts of gold), exasperated mothers, cousins inheriting mansions from long-lost aunts, insolent children being sent to boarding school—their playtime has all of the dizzying social complexities of a 19th century Russian novel.

Every once in a while, though, when exchanges between neighbor boys playing in their backyards drift in through the open windows of my home, my own youth comes rushing back to me.

“Bang! You’re dead! I shot you.”

“No, you didn’t. You missed me.”

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Now I shot you.”

“Nuh uh. You’re out of bullets.”

Many educators are unnerved by this sort of play. They fear that boys who play cops and robbers when they’re young will grow up to be violent and aggressive, exhibiting anti-social, if not, criminal, behavior. To curtail boys’ more aggressive and violent play (read: to make them play more like girls), many schools have banished violent play from classrooms and playgrounds.

Yet, as reported in a recent article in LiveScience.com, educators may need to learn to “work with, rather than against” boys’ aggressive tendencies.

The article cites the work McREL Principal Researcher Elena Bodrova, whose research on early childhood education calls out the importance of dramatic play on children’s social and intellectual development. Through sophisticated forms of imaginative play (including games like cops and robbers), children learn to delay gratification (by remaining, for example, in the “role” of policeman even when they want to play a robber), consider the perspective of others (e.g., by playing jailer one day and prisoner the next), and control their impulses.

Letting boys work through their natural aggressive urges can help them learn to set limits on their own behavior—learning to draw a line, for example, between pretend and real violence, like biting, hair pulling, or hitting. In addition, boys’ play, which often involves “bad guys,” may also help them to work on their impulse control, according to Mary Ellin Logue, a researcher at the University of Maine quoted in the article. Boys, says Logue, “are trying really hard to be good, but it’s really hard to be good. These bad guys give them a way to externalize that part of them that they are trying to conquer.”

Read the LiveScience article, “Battling the Boys: Educators Grapple with Violent Play,” here.

Learn more about Bodrova’s work and McREL’s approach to early childhood development here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

11 Comments

  • Mary Brewer says:

    I haven’t been teaching long, just over 4 years, but I have had an abundance of boys come through my classroom – many more boys that girls. At first, this unnerved me. I soon learned to “let boys be boys.” They are going to play rougher, be more aggressive, and be louder than girls. I have learned to use those qualities as a springboard for learning activities. If I can use their competitive sides and high energy levels to teach them something, then I will. It requires more planning and creativity on my part, but it is definitely worth it in the end.

  • Pamela Willoughby says:

    My school is one of those that doesn’t want to let boys play cops and robbers or bad guys vs.good guys. I think the reason for this is that so many of the students parents are in jail. However, most of my boys want to grow up to be policemen! I think kids need to be kids!

  • Marianne McGhee says:

    As an educator, and a mother of two boys, I think we need to let boys be boys. Let’s face it, boys like thinks that make loud noises, move fast, and even blow up. That does not mean they are going to cause problems or lead to violent attacks.
    Often in schools, boys can’t write about using guns, sword fights, military jet attacks, or anything else they like. Yet we constantly state that “Johnny doesn’t write well” or Johnny will even say that he doesn’t like to write. Maybe Johnny just doesn’t like the topic he has to write about, and he is not allowed to write about what he is really interested in. No one would think to tell the girls that they can not write about playing dress up, going shopping, or even playing with dolls. But we do this to the boys.
    Lets give the boys a chance to be boys and watch their creativity soar!!

  • Susan VerBurg says:

    I am in my eleventh year of teaching at the middle school level. This topic is unnerving for me as an educator. So often I hear parents with the “He’s just being a boy” excuse regarding misbehavior. What exactly does THAT mean? I rarely hear parents giving the “She’s just being a girl” excuse. A boy can act like a boy (ie, competitive, aggressive) in many ways without involving violence. Take sports, for example. Is this not a release for both tendancies?
    What I’m saying is…the “He’s just being a boy” line is simply an excuse for inappropriateness, and even more likely unsaid, an excuse for lack of boundaries at home.

  • Susan,
    I agree with your perspective. In fact, one of the researchers interviewed for the article, Michael Thompson, makes the comment in the article that there’s no such thing as “violent play”—that is, play should never involve physically hurting someone else. So letting boys be boys doesn’t mean giving them permission to hurt each other. To the contrary, it should help them understand how to impose their own limits on their behavior.
    Bryan

  • Bob Feldman says:

    From my memories as a child and my observations before and after becoming a teacher, boys, without a doubt, struggle from seemingly feminized classrooms. Struggle, though, is not always bad, and all students must be accountable to behaving appropriately. Learning to follow rules, even if they may not allow students to express the tendencies of their gender, is an important component of education. I think we as teachers do far more harmful things such as yelling and calling students names out of frustration that can come from not understanding the frustration that result from being a boy bottled in a classroom. Having said the above, I am very much a teacher who allows “Boys be Boys” but believes that this issue is a small part of the “Boy Problem.”

  • Esther Smith says:

    In my data-free opinion, the gender differences are undeniable. The question still is, how do balance individual, gender and group needs?
    A balancing act for every teacher.

  • Loree says:

    Yes boy are agressive but that is no excuse for them to make poor choices. It not and excuse as educators to use. I’m a mother of three boys and I let them be boys but they also understand that they have to make good choices. Teaching for seven years I notice that boys are more competive but girls can be the same you most comduct your classroom in a matter where there is a equal playing ground.

  • Robyn Harris says:

    I can see both sides to this. I agree that you have to let little boys be themselves. If we are constantly telling them that what they are doing is wrong then they are going to sneak around to do it. I would rather them play and teach them what is right and what is wrong. I believe that it is very important for them to know what is right and what is wrong. If you think back in the day little boys played cowboys and indians and nobody thought a thing of it.
    On the other side to this I do catch myself telling the children at my school that we are not allowed to play guns. I think this is all because of the shootings that we have in schools today. So I really do not know what the answer is to all of this?

  • Chantel says:

    I agree that boys should be boys. With my own son, he likes to play “shooting”. I do allow him to but we always remind him that guns are not to be aimed at people. He plays like people are animals and he is hunting. I know that this is a little different then the cops and robbers in the article but do you think that my view on allowing my son to play “shooting” is okay?

  • Kathryn says:

    Young boys need an aspect of ‘play’ during their development. I think that it allows them to explore and learn and be able to manage their behaviors in the future. I also am of the strong opinion that these ‘bang, bang’ games should be fased out as the child develops as we see a lot of violent tendencies coming from youth spending hours upon hours playing online violence games. This can be detrimental.
    I teach a high energy, low level class which is prominently boys. They require activities that are competitive and often end in a class winner, this proves how what they are experiencing in early development can have an impact later in life.

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