Boys are more physically aggressive than girls. This is a statement that most people, and most parents, would agree with. But do boys’ aggressive tendencies come from biological differences between the sexes, or are we raising boys to be more aggressive than girls?
While biology plays a role, there is clear research evidence that we as parents are partly to blame for boys’ aggression. Parents are influenced by the gender roles and gender stereotypes that are considered normative in society. And in Western society (as well as many others) males are idealised as strong, dominant, and competitive. This is important because the way we think males “should” be impacts the ways we raise our boys.
We are more tolerant of aggressive behaviours from boys (“boys will be boys!”) than from girls, while less tolerant of emotional expression (particularly crying) from boys than from girls. We also parent them differently, using more communication and verbal control with girls while relying on physical control with boys. During the early childhood years, differential expectations and treatment based on gender role stereotypes end up resulting in real differences in aggression between boys and girls.
A study published in Child Development in 2017 found that the use of physical control by fathers is critical to the socialisation of aggression. Physical control strategies include grabbing, pushing, holding, physically redirecting, and spanking.
Even though mothers used more physical control with boys than with girls, this did not predict later gender differences in aggression. It was only fathers’ use of physical control that led to later aggression. When fathers used more physical control with their sons, the boys ended up more aggressive one year later. Interestingly, some fathers used more physical control with their daughters, and these girls also ended up more aggressive one year later. Clearly fathers, and their behavioural control strategies, are important in the socialisation of aggression. Importantly, the use of physical control was directly related to the gender role stereotypes that fathers held.
Reducing Physical Aggression in Boys
There are two important ways that parents (fathers in particular) can help to reduce the physical aggression of boys:
1) Eliminate/change their gender role stereotypes
2) Minimise use of physical control and use alternative strategies for behavioural control
Changing attitudes and beliefs about gender roles is difficult, as these are often deeply held beliefs that operate outside our awareness as much as within. But the good news is that times are changing and many fathers are already shifting to more egalitarian views of gender. In the 2017 study described above, over half of fathers in the Netherlands study sample had egalitarian (non-stereotypical) attitudes about gender roles.
And making conscious decisions to avoid gender stereotypes in parenting will go a long way to changing underlying attitudes. This includes treating acts of physical aggression similarly in boys and girls, and talking to boys about emotions, and allowing their expression, the same way we do with girls.
Regarding the minimisation of physical control, these strategies are merely modelling aggression to children and, especially when used by fathers, are likely to result in aggressive kids. More effective types of behavioural control include communication of appropriate rules, monitoring of child behaviour, and verbal disapproval of misbehaviours.
If we change our expectations about children (in this case our gender role stereotypes), our parenting behaviours will change as a consequence. More egalitarian views of boys and girls will result in numerous positive outcomes, only one of which is the reduction of physical aggression in boys.