16 June 2013

If "Boys Will Be Boys," How Will the World Ever Change?

I might be wading into dangerous territory here, but something grievous has happened in my life and I want to share my thoughts and reactions.

Over the last six years (a long time in the life of a child), I have worked with a lovely multi-aged group of children as their resource teacher. (Nothing fancy. Basically, it means the children are homeschooled — or unschooled (life as teacher) — and I provide special learning opportunities for them one to two days per week.)

Almost from our first day together six years ago, I noticed the tendency of children of the male persuasion to turn almost anything into some sort of weapon. The oldest children were only 7 at the time, so it was easy to turn pretend bazookas into whipped cream shooters (I had to think of something fast) and ... well, you get the picture. 

We (the parents and I, but especially I) made a special effort to talk to the kids about the importance of peace and creating a safe space for each other. We decided that our class would be a pacifist one. We came up with a school peace policy one year after witnessing a particularly violent Christmas concert (violence in the name of student creativity at the "Prince of Peace" time of year doesn't work for me). 

We ask any "fighters" to rationalize what they're fighting for (a critical thinking exercise), and whether they're both feeling safe in the role play. Our stylized kendo fighters (best friends who are taking karate lessons together) are asked to take it outdoors or into the gym so that others aren't hurt by their twirling (and occasionally whacking) sticks. 

One mom of two sons (and a daughter) told me recently that our pacifism custom (it's not quite a rule) has spilled over into their family life, making things at home more peaceful for all of them.

These days, however, not only have my original students grown older but the class has grown bigger. We have new students who are coming in at older ages, already inured to toy (and some real) weapons, play fighting and online video game violence. 

The change in the dynamic of my class is shocking and, frankly, breaking my heart. I'm noticing unkindness, rudeness and, yes, violence. (I don't think it's acceptable for older kids to threaten younger kids just because the younger kids are pesky at times.)

Now please don't go off thinking you know what I'm going to say. I'm still trying to wrap words around something I've never heard or thought about before. I'll try to come to it by showing you, with some examples, what I'm not thinking.

1. In one of Canada's national papers, a columnist whose views I tend not to agree with wrote a recent article entitled Boys will be boys – schools need to understand that in which she conflates the hands-on and active (kinesthetic) learning style of many boys (and the lack of respect for that learning style in the education system) with boys' predilection for "mock violence." 

"The punishment of boys for being boys proceeds apace. But what happens to them on the playground is the least of it. What happens in the classroom is worse," she says. I, however, don't see an obvious, necessary or natural connection between "going bang-bang" with a finger and boys' learning needs. Classrooms can be active, exciting places to learn without being (mockly) violent places.

2. The second example comes from the Huffington Post and Soraya Chemaly's The Problem with 'Boys Will Be Boys'. In this article, the author chooses to explore a rape metaphor when what I saw in her story was violence, pure and simple. 

Violence (and meanness) like that does not happen more than once in my learning group. "We're a family," I point out, "and we don't treat each other like that here." And then "the village" steps in to create diversions (aka interesting learning activities). (By the way, why is the violent little boy in that article not building his own castles?)

3. The third example is certainly getting closer to what I'm trying to point out. A young boy named Benny made the following video to point out how young boys like Benny are being manipulated into accepting militarization as the only route for boys. Surely, allowing boys to grow up in peace, without indoctrination into the narrow world (and worldview) of war and violence, is not the same as feminization or emasculation? And are we, as their parents and other caregivers, still comfortable being pimps for the army and other violent gangs?

"Boys will be boys" is a proverb excuse given when boys (or men) behave badly, in a noisy, rude, unpleasant or irresponsible way (I'm collating several online definitions here). But if we keep making that excuse, how will things ever shift?

Here, then, is the point I'm trying to make. Are we all agreed that peace on Earth would be a pretty nifty thing? (I'm not going to include Pentagon generals or Security Council officials in that question.) 

If we consider simply the carbon footprint of the world's militaries, we can come up with an important justification for promoting peace. If we also take the human toll on individuals, families and communities into account, only the most callous and mercenary would trot out the "he hit me back first" justification for war and violence. 

So if we want to create peace on Earth, aren't we going to have to change a few things first? Like the fact that we give boys free reign to indulge in "mock" violence merely because they're boys? (Wait, I'm not done yet. I'm not into suspending little kids because they go "bang-bang" with their finger.)

It is believed that for hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of years, hominid and human males have been the protectors of their family groups. (Believe me, hominid and human mothers have had their hands full looking after the kids!) 

Sometimes violence was a necessary part of that defence. (One does not negotiate with a sabretooth tiger at the entrance to the cave.) But in many parts of the world, the modern era has seen a huge shift in that role. Our sabretooth tigers are gone (though wild animals are still a threat in some places). 

Can our species not find / choose / allow / promote a new role for males, then? Can we not ask boys and men to use that hands-on, kinesthetic energy to come up with ways to safeguard the planet? Does their focus — their "enemy" — always have to be in flesh and blood (heavy on the blood, it seems)? 

Can the focus not be greenhouse gases, corporate malfeasance, ill-conceived inventions, an economy run amok? Can our kids not turn their attention to new inventions that haven't been invented yet, new ways of creating energy, new ways of living that don't use fossil fuels?

Maybe fighting is so engrained in male genes that my idea is nuts. Maybe I just need to turn a blind eye to it. (Not going to happen, not when my heart is hurting.) Maybe I need to see "playfighting" as just that: play. (But to what end? We don't have to fight to feed anymore, so why learn to fight?) 

Maybe I simply need to vigilantly watch that playfighting doesn't turn violent, that all my students feel safe in our group space. But if pretend bazookas can serve as whipped cream shooters (oh, the kids had fun making those imaginary banana splits!), then why can't protecting the future become an active, exciting yet peaceful pursuit?

I dunno. What do you think?

p.s. Here are two past posts that you might find of interest:
Calling on the Feminine
Turning Play Weapons into Garden Tools?

1 comment:

  1. You are frustrated because you care! I don't believe that boys will be boys has to mean that they will be mean. Look to our television shows, our comic strips, our violent computer games for the source of the violence. Just as children need to learn not to touch fire or they will be burned, boys and girls need a teacher like you to teach them alternative ways of being and relating to each other. You and I and parents and teachers are the ones that can change the world, one boy or girl at a time. Your pacifism ripples out into families, into your school, into the hearts and minds of growing children.


I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?