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4 Words You Need to Stop Saying About Your Sons

The scene is a familiar one: a boy plays in the dirt with his trucks and cars. He’s being loud and is full of energy. He makes the sound of an explosion with his mouth, “Booom!” as he knocks over a tower of buckets. He’s just a happy kid playing outside. Then someone says it—“He’s such a boy!” or “He’s all boy!”—and my skin crawls.

It’s such a common phrase, and perhaps that’s a reason it’s so frustrating. It pops up in my Facebook newsfeed. I overhear parents and grandparents commenting on kids at school or at the park. Even my friends and I have joked about our own children this way. I understand what everyone is trying to say. The boy we’re talking about is rambunctious, active and loud. Maybe he likes dirt and cars and wrestling. Maybe he’s destructive or disorganized.

Whether people are saying it with pride or out of frustration, I’ve got plenty of issues with this phrase.

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First of all, it’s promoting a very traditional and outdated gender stereotype. I know many people swear on their life that boys are inherently different from girls, and that may be true. But the way we talk to, talk about and treat our children and the expectations that we have are incredibly powerful in shaping the people they become. When we expect boys to be rowdy and active, we are grooming them to be exactly that.

The problem is that we are genderizing behaviors and personality traits—things that have no place being gendered. Being active does not have a gender. There’s no gender in being shy or loud or sensitive. Nor is there gender in being funny, smart, lazy or ambitious. Anyone can have any (or all) of these characteristics, regardless of gender, and yet our culture feels it necessary to assign them one anyway.

If we don’t want our children to be aggressive or destructive or disrespectful, don’t defend these actions, teach them what’s right.

Why do we feel the need to make a behavior a male or female thing? Why aren’t they just human behaviors?

And what REALLY makes me angry is when people say these things in front of kids. We all know that every kid is different. While some boys are loud and rough, some are more reserved and sensitive. I’ve been working with young children for over a decade, and I’ve seen plenty of boys at both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. I’ve seen boys who’d rather read than play tag, boys who talk quietly and don’t yell out in class or on the yard. Many boys who have all these characteristics and show them differently, depending on the time or the setting. We all know that there is not just one way of being a boy or a girl. But when we say things like, “He’s all boy,” we’re creating and celebrating a hierarchy of qualities. We’re saying that THIS is the way to be a boy.

So if “all boy” is being loud, active, rowdy or however you have defined it, then what of the boy who is not those things? Is he less of a boy? Not 100% boy?

Any child who hears this seemingly harmless comment will take something away from it. The boy who is not “all boy” will feel less-than and ashamed. He’ll feel like even more of an outsider amongst those who display those qualities we’ve proclaimed to be “boy.” And the child you’re referring to who is all boy? Well he certainly isn’t going to shy away from whatever he was just doing. You just gave him a metaphorical high five affirming his behaviors, because most young kids want to be recognized as the gender they identify with.

Girls are also hearing this message. They are learning that certain behaviors are identified with being a boy and may feel the need to distance themselves from those. Or, if they share some of those characteristics, they may wonder if they are less of a girl. Regardless, kids are learning what adults think boys and girls should be and how they should act from these types of comments.

Let’s not define being a boy as one thing. Rather, let's expand our definitions to include all the characteristics we want to see in our boys and young men.

And please, do not use, “boys will be boys” to excuse bad behavior. No, it is not acceptable to say that “he’s just being a boy” when a boy has punched another kid in the face. And no, it isn’t OK to stand by and watch a kid bully others by repeatedly knocking over their towers and then respond with a “boys will be boys!” If you do this, you are giving permission, even encouraging, this type of behavior. These boys are learning that their actions are normal and that they aren’t in control of them, because it’s some “natural” part of being a boy.

If we don’t want our children to be aggressive or destructive or disrespectful, don’t defend these actions, teach them what’s right. Expect more. Expect something different.

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So stop calling your son “all boy” and just call it what it is. Say, “Yeah, he’s an energetic one!” or “He loves getting dirty!” And let’s affirm all the positive behaviors that we do want to see in our children. Instead of pointing out just the things this culture has deemed “masculine,” start making it clear to your child that you notice and appreciate when he’s being sensitive or generous or kind or careful.

Let’s not define being a boy as one thing. Rather, let's expand our definitions to include all the characteristics we want to see in our boys and young men. Let’s focus more on celebrating and verbalizing what we want our children to be like and less on what we think our children are like because of some old and simplistic stereotypes.

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Image via Twenty20/MissHakim

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