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Bullying (Part 2): “Boys Will Be Boys”

  • Posted on October 15, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Boys will be boys, but what does that mean? 

When conforming to cultural gender norms, “boys will be boys” refers to the tendency for young males to enjoy getting dirty, playing rough and doing things that girls (when conforming to gender norms) consider icky.

In relation to the bullying behaviors attributed to “boys will be boys,” it refers to pushing, fighting and calling each other names.  But despite the pressure to dismiss bullying as “boys being boys,” there is a difference.

Yes, boys will be boys, as my children prove.  Brandon and Will don’t always get along, but sometimes they do.  Whether they’re getting along or not, they often play roughly with each other.  They wrestle.  They try to pin each other to the ground.  They chase each other and call each other names.  They tease and make fun of each other.  They poke and prod at each other’s weak spots—mentally, physically and emotionally.

This is boys being boys.  It is also sibling rivalry.

This is not bullying.  This is not harassment.  This is not abuse.

What’s the difference?  Despite the persistence of Brandon and Will’s rivalry, they are not doing this to hurt one another or to dominate each other.  They’re having fun.  Even when one of them is physically or emotionally hurt, they’re back at it in a few moments—laughing and smiling.  They both enjoy interacting with each other in this manner.

I remember, as a child, having a bully nearby.  The memories are rather vague.  I was very young—five or six—and have lived several places since then.  I don’t remember his name.  But I do remember he often tried to intimidate the younger kids, myself included, into doing what he wanted.  He would put his shoulders back and puff out his chest, towering over us, and tell us what to do.  As much as we tried to avoid him, he seemed to prefer playing with younger kids, because he could make us do what he wanted.  His whole demeanor changed whenever my brother or any of the other older kids came around.

This isn’t “boys being boys.”  It’s bullying.  He wasn’t physically violent and he didn’t target anyone in particular, besides those weaker and smaller than he was, so it wasn’t abuse or harassment.  He was just a bully—unpleasant, but not particularly dangerous.  Most of the self-assertive techniques I read about in the papers these days would probably have worked on him.

In junior high school, there was another child—the same age as me—who was more than a bully.  We first met when I arrived at the elementary school he attended in sixth grade.  Up until that point, this boy was recognized as the smartest kid in class.  He was also cool.  He was also surprisingly friendly to me that first day.  Having looked at my scholastic record, the principal put me in a differentiated English class, which is the first I’d ever encountered a “gifted and talented” class.  That class was in the morning, so I didn’t participate until the second day.  This boy was, of course, the star of that class.  As I said, up until that class he’d been quite nice to me.  Then, as we sat in the circle, I made a mistake. 

The teacher told me that since I had not read the book they were discussing, I wasn’t expected to do more than listen.  And for the first twenty minutes I did exactly that.  Then, the teacher asked a question about the book that none of the other students—including the star of the class—could answer.  They’d (presumably) read the book and they couldn’t answer the question.  I waited and waited and waited, but no matter how she tried to lead them to the answer, none of them knew it.  So I raised my hand.  And I answered the question.  I knew the answer from the discussion and because I understood plot and character motive on an instinctive level.  I answered a question about a book I hadn’t read that he couldn’t answer even though he’d read the book.  And I became the star of the class. 

And that was the start of it all.  For the next 3 years he tormented me.  It wasn’t simple bullying.  It wasn’t merely intimidation and badgering.  It started that way, but it escalated.  At first, he tried to best me academically, but there were subjects that I always won at (though, I didn’t regard it as a competition).  When he couldn’t best me academically, he bullied me.  When bullying didn’t make me stop “showing off” by answering questions and showing my intelligence and creativity, he started harassing me.  He tormented me in school and he threatened and chased me outside of school.  It was targeted harassment; it was personal; it was revenge for a crime I didn’t even realize I’d committed.  I tried standing up to him and I tried ignoring; it didn’t help.  He had a very strong, very personal motive for his behavior.  He got something out of it, and he wasn’t going to stop.  It probably would have continued indefinitely—at least as long as I stayed there—if he hadn’t made a mistake.

One day when I was walking down a bike path in the woods, he and a group of his friends saw me.  They threw rocks at me (though it was obvious that they were not trying to hit me—they all had better aim than that).  They taunted and teased me.  I ran.  They chased me.  I hid.  They hunted me.  They weren’t trying to catch me, but they were trying to make me afraid—and they succeeded.

Then, I caught up with two other students.  One of these guys was friends with my brother; I was friends with his sister.  The other was kind-of-sort-of friends with the boy who was tormenting me.  They were both the “boys will be boys” type of boys; they weren’t particularly nice to me, but they also didn’t tolerate boys hurting girls.  They saw me and they started teasing me about running like I was.  Then they realized that I was really afraid.  And then the boy who was tormenting me, along with his cronies, topped the rise on their bicycles.  My brother’s friend asked me what was going on, and I told him.  He asked me why, and I told him I didn’t know.  So, my brother’s friend went over to the boys who were chasing me and explained, quite sensibly, that if they didn’t leave me alone, then he would tell my brother what they were up to and my brother (who was three years older than us and quite big—football-muscles big) would get a bunch of his friends together and they’d kick their f***in’ a**es for f***in’ with his little sister.  While he did that, the other guy asked me if I really didn’t know why the tormenter had targeted me.  I told him I really didn’t.  So, he explained it to me; from that moment in sixth grade and all the supposed slights in between—the boy who tormented me couldn’t stand it that a girl was smarter than him and didn’t have the decency not to show it.  I said, “That’s absurd.”  The guy shrugged.  “But that’s just it.  I mean, really.  It’s stupid.  It’s f***ed up.  But no.  You say ‘absurd.’”

It took me quite a while to fully grasp what he meant by that.  I’m still not entirely sure I understand why my tormenter’s self-esteem was such that my being smarter than him was perceived as such a threat.  However much I do not understand the misogyny or the neurotypicality that makes my tormenter’s motive make sense, I do know his behavior wasn’t just bullying.  It was harassment.  And much of what I have heard and read about that is being labeled bullying is this sort of harassment.  The motives may be different, but the motives are more complicated and more personal than mere bullying.  The children (and adults) who are targeted for harassment are targeted for more than just their relative weakness; they are targeted for their differences, for imagined slights or for other, specific reasons.  Harassers get more out of harassing their victims than bullies get out from their victims.  When behavior like this starts—targeted, on-going harassment—it’s escalated beyond bullying and we need to acknowledge that in our language and in our remedies.

I’ve been lucky.  I’ve never been beaten up.  Personally, I attribute this “luck” to my brother and his superior social skills.  Twice I’ve been threatened:  once by a guy and once by a girl.  The guy stopped chasing me when he learned who my brother was.  The girl targeted me because she had reason to dislike my brother (a woman scorned and all of that), and she wanted to show it by beating me up.  Fortunately for me, one of my brother’s female friends interfered.

I can’t share a personal story of physical abuse—at least not of a nature that could be described as bullying.  But many stories I’ve read lately have involved children beating up other children on a repeated basis.  This isn’t new.  I know that.  But it’s not bullying; and it bothers me that the stories in the news are reporting it as bullying.  Beating someone up is not bullying; it’s abuse; it’s assault, perhaps assault and battery.  I’ve heard stories where assertiveness has made a difference.  My husband has told me such a story.  But, whether or not assertiveness is an issue, we’re talking about abuse and assault—where talking about crimes.

Boys will be boys.  Some boys are bullies.  I think bullying is morally wrong.  I think bullying should be addressed and that both bullies and victims deserve our attention.  We need to find effective ways to prevent bullying and teach solutions to both bullies and their victims to prevent bullying behavior.  But I don’t think bullying should be a crime.  I really don’t think bullying is our problem, except in the sense that bullying is like the “gateway drug” to more serious problems.  The solution is not to create anti-bullying legislation. 

The solution is to call all this so-called bullying that’s been in the news what it is: harassment and abuse/assault.  If harassment and abuse aren’t already crimes, then they should be crimes.  But I believe they are already crimes.  And we should treat them as such instead of dismissing it as “boys being boys.”

[Next, I will write about “girls being girls.”  After all, boys aren’t the only bullies and bullying behavior from girls is often different from bullying behavior from boys.]