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.

So I want to refrain from saying that a girl must be this or a boy must be this, and really try to keep an open mind about what they're capable of. And infant studies show us that both boys and girls are born with a capacity for and a fundamental desire for relationships—to be close and to be connected. And if anything they find that boy babies need more help regulating themselves. When they are upset they need their primary caregiver to help them regulate and come back to a feeling of contentment.

So when you look at infant studies which show that boys and girls both seek connection to other people, and then at these later reports when they get to adolescence where boys are reporting fewer close relationships, lower levels of intimacy within their close relationships, then that kind of suggests that for boys, their socialization and development are associated with a move out of relationships. They start out wanting and thriving in relationships, and then they are moved away from those protective relationships, and there's a cost.

The study mostly focuses on relationships between boys, and discusses how learning to be boys involves hiding feelings, or distancing emotions. Were the boys affected by their relationships with girls in the class at all? Were they freer to express emotion in those interactions?

Well, they created this "Mean Team," which was a club created by the boys for the boys for the purpose of acting against girls. So after they created that, at least on the surface, they would say, oh we don't play with girls.

But as Jake, one of the boys, articulated when I met with him, he said, "I'm actually friends with the girls but I don't let Mikey find out, because if he finds out he'll fire me from his team, and then I won't have a team and that would be a bummer."

So, with Jake, his parents were really supportive and would arrange for him to have playdates at home, which the other boys didn't necessarily know about since they were out of view. Whereas Rob, who was the one who said, "I'm not friends with the girls because I'm friends with the boys," because he had internalized that rules, he didn't have the options to seek closeness anywhere other than with his boy relationships. And as a result it was either be with the boys or be alone, and at least at the endpoint of my book he had opted just to be alone, and that was a consequence he was willing to accept in order to make his own decisions.

So to get back to your question, boys can have these relationships with girls. And at this age they have the same value as a relationship with a boy. I think it's less about if it's a boy or a girl and more about how close the relationships are. So they could have this closeness with a boy if the context allowed for it, but if the context doesn't allow for a close relationship with boys, then a relationship with a girl can be helpful and protective and supportive.

There was this enormous study back in the late 1990s; they surveyed like 90,000 adolescents and they interviewed 10,000. It was Michael Resnik and a huge team of researchers, and they basically found that the single best protector during adolescence, against psychological risks like low self-esteem and depression, and against social risks like unintended pregnancy, was having access to at least one close, confiding relationship. And that could be with a parent or a mentor or a friend or a sibling or whoever. The kids who had at least one close relationship were protected against all of those risks, and were better off for it.