How Boys Teach Each Other to Be Boys

Taking cues from family and media, young boys teach their peers how to perform masculinity, to their detriment.
Boys play on an obstacle course outside a kindergarten in Germany. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

What makes a male child become a “boy,” as we understand that concept socially? In her new book, When Boys Become Boys, Judy Y. Chu reports on her two-year study in which she followed a group of boys from pre-kindergarten through first grade. She concluded that most of what we think of as "boy" behavior isn't natural or authentic to boys, but is something they learn to perform. Boys aren't stoic or aggressive or hierarchical; they aren't bad at forming relationships or unable to express themselves. They pick up all these traditional traits of masculinity by adapting to a culture that expects and demands that they do so.

I interviewed Chu about gender roles, relationships, and how boys become boys.

The primary cultural forces you discuss in your book seems to be the boys themselves and their peer group. So it seems like they become boys through learning from other boys; it's boys teaching themselves to be boys. So where do you see the inauthenticity or unnaturalness there?

It's not as though they're arriving in their interactions having come from an isolated place. They're hearing messages from older siblings, from media, or some of the boys' parents were more conventional in terms of the messages that they were telling them. So they were hearing messages about masculinity and bringing them to their peer group context.

One of the boys had access to R-rated movies, and so he'd come in and for boys who don't have exposure to that kind of media, it was kind of an initiation—oh, there are these messages out there and I didn't know that. So they're learning from each other about masculine posturing. They're teaching each other, but it's not like this is something that they're born knowing.

That's not to say that there's nothing inherent in their behavior. Each boy has a different temperament and personality and some are more inclined to be bossy or whatever. But in terms of trying to be stoic, none of that is innate. They're creating a culture for themselves based on the bits and pieces they've gotten elsewhere.

You talk about how boys lose authenticity over time, or become less authentic and more performative, taking on roles rather than expressing what they really feel directly. But isn't it good for people to learn how to be less natural in some ways? Toilet training for example; you don't want them to do the natural thing, right?

Absolutely; being socialized is not inherently problematic. Obviously we want to teach our kids to be appropriate so they're not at a restaurant dancing naked on the table. You want to teach them to be savvy and strategic; you don't want them to be vulnerable in every situation and then have that vulnerability taken advantage of. But it's more that distinction between compromise and over-compromise, in which they're so focused on setting up a particular image that they believe will get them what they want—acceptance and popularity and success—and realizing that that comes at a cost. And that cost comes when the fit between who they are and who they feel comfortable being doesn't perfectly match society's expectations, and they feel like, oh, I can't show people this part of myself, because then they won't like me.

That's not to say that they need to be open and out there in every situation. But they need to have at least one place or one relationship where they can do those things.

Do you feel like there are developmental differences between girls and boys? And if so, what are they? Or if not, what are the parallels?

I am wary of the whole "[just] boys being boys" thing because, first of all, you see what you look for; you find what you look for. So if you expect boys to be a certain way, you'll say, oh, it's boys being boys when they're rowdy or rambunctious or whatever, but never "boys will be boys" when they're being sweet or sensitive or smart or insightful. So I am wary of those kinds of stereotypes or gender roles.

Especially because, as Terrence Real, who's a couples' therapist, says, when you take the whole range of human capabilities and qualities, and you say one half is masculine, and one half is feminine, and only boys can be masculine, and only girls can be feminine, then everybody loses, because you're asking everyone to cut off and deny a part of their humanity.

At the same time, absolutely we live in a culture and a society where we are perceived in our bodies, and people respond to us accordingly. So boys and girls do grow up in a gendered society, as Michael Kimmel terms it. The pronouns are different, the expectations are different. When I was pregnant with my son, the first thing people would ask me was, is it a boy or a girl? And what do they think that tells them? And my sister-in-law, who knows what I study, said, "Oh, well you'll know what personality he'll have, and what he'll be when he grows up, and what sort of relationship we'll have with him," all based on the fact that he has a penis rather than a vagina.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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