An excuse to look away? It's time to stop saying 'boys will be boys'

"Men are acting out violently," she says, "but they are also suffering - for multiple reasons."
"Men are acting out violently," she says, "but they are also suffering - for multiple reasons."

In an attempt to find an answer to the question of who is responsible for improving the current crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa, we ran a poll on News24 and an astonishing 47% of respondents put the responsibility squarely on parents.

Read the story here: Who is responsible for improving the current crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa?

Astonishing, because while parents can do their best at home, our children also have free will, and are exposed to many other influences out in the world, online and at school.

And then there is this terrible expression that many, many parent's are guilty of using as an excuse to certain behaviours:

"Boys will be boys"

Parents of boys are no stranger to this quip, one which is used to excuse a wide variety of behaviours.

But when used to mitigate habits that excuse misogyny, chauvinism and an overall message that men are not accountable for their actions, it can create a society that condones gender-based violence. 

As a mother of a sweet boy, I also understand the knee-jerk reaction of women who have come out in support of the #notallmen backlash to the #metoo and #amInext movements. 

Of course, I want to say "Not my son."

But that would be irresponsible. He is capable of gender-based violence, and it is my job as a parent to steer and guide him away from this, to protect him from a culture of toxic masculinity, to make him feel strong enough to stand up for the rights of women, and of all people. 

We spoke to experts, and parents, to dig further into this issue. 

'Men are acting out violently but they are also suffering'

Megan de Beyer, a psychologist who works to raise awareness about the development of masculinity, told us that "For more than 10 years I've been harping on about a male crisis."

Just look at the stats, she says: compared to women there are a number of alarming male dominated stats: more me n in jail, more men involved in murder, rape, gun crimes, more men involved in accidents because of risk-taking behaviour, more boys and men are committing suicide and more boys suffer from ADHD and ADD.

"Men are acting out violently," she says, "but they are also suffering - for multiple reasons."

Society's messages have put men in a straight jacket de Beyer explains. To be a real man you must protect, provide, perform well sexually, be strong, don't cry or be weak. "Toxic masculinity has driven this over to chauvinism - that men must dominate and have power over women," she says. 

The question to ask is why?

What is really going on? Why can't our men improve their emotional EQ and open up and talk?

It's because we have all supported the strong male syndrome, de Beyer says. "Men must DO not just BE. Of course, it is changing in small pockets amongst the teens today, but overall it's a crisis because boys, teens and men don't know what to do with their vulnerability, their shame, any suffering they have felt as a child, their powerlessness in the face of economic decline." 

"We can't simply mock, blame and shame masculinity," she says. "We have all played a role. So many girls and women still go for the 'bad' boy and the jock. So many mothers still serve their sons and allow their sons to be the prince in the home - that needs to stop too!"

"A household is a team where we all play our part in all the chores. So many homes allow dad to be the king of the castle and son follows suit," she adds.

"Woman need to speak up and value their opinions and voices and name the bully - even if it is our brother, our father, our husband or our son. But we need a big picture view and it needs to be handled by the entire society - not just in our homes," she says. 

The narrative is untrue

We unpacked this topic further with Kate Rowe, founder and CEO of, who says that the narrative of boys will be boys along with the story which says girls and woman feel more and are more empathetic is untrue.

"We all have the innate capacity to feel, grow the skill of empathy and learn how to engage with ourselves and others on a feeling level," she explained to Parent24. 

It is important to understand the unconscious biases which arises from social conditioning and stories, Rowe explains, and how you as a parent have made them part of your thinking, and how you interact with others and your children.

An excuse to look away

"It is a social story which we have all bought into and allows us to look away from behaviour we do not want to address," she says. "This is what makes the narrative of boys will be boys so destructive. It gives us an excuse."

Rowe believes there is a simple solution to all of this: stop putting people in boxes and let’s start looking at each other as humans, all in this together.

"So instead of saying boys will be boys, stop for a moment and check in, really check in, if this behaviour is appropriate or not," she advises. "Irrespective of what gender this person was assigned at birth or how they choose to express their gender now."

"Radical honesty is needed, yes, it is uncomfortable, yes, it is not easy to turn towards a situation which we feel we do not have the skills to deal with. Do it anyway," she urges. 

Also read: ‘Hey, you can’t talk to girls like that’: Which gender-based violence interventions actually work?

This is what is needed in our country right now

When you hear your teenage son talking about another person, not only a girl or woman, in a way which is not respectful, Rowe says, address it. Simply saying that is not appropriate or don’t talk like that or boys will be boys, is not enough.

You need to actively engage with them, the same goes for girls who are speaking disrespectfully or harmfully of another person.

"Have the uncomfortable conversations, be courageous, this is what is needed in our country right now," she says.

"Be curious about where the words came from, why they felt it was okay to say that, encourage and help them to see how this would make another person feel."

Behaviour, Rowe reminds us, including what we say, is motivated by what is going on inside and what we are feeling. "Commit to looking at what is underneath so we can have conversations which fundamentally change the narrative of how we treat each other," she says.

'If you leave it to age 12+ then it’s too late'

We asked parents on The Village what they are doing to break this narrative, starting within their own homes, and here are some of their encouraging and helpful responses: 

Sam says: It is the responsibility mostly of the men in our society be it in the role of parent, teacher, husband, co-worker. They need to role model behaviour and to call it out when others are inappropriate.

They need to defend against violence with empathy and understanding. They need to take responsibility for their children and be grown ups.

Fairoze says: It starts at home, with little humans and how we treat our boy children and girl children. Simple [...] things we say: "head of households", men always holding power because you're a man, "boys don't cry", boys get treated differently to girls - so many examples.

We can start by treating our girl children and boy children the same. This thing where as society we feel we have control over women's bodies, what to wear, when to wear it and how. We need to stop policing women's bodies.

Tish says: I have to agree (as the mom of a boy) that it starts at home, here with us. They watch how we are treated, how we accept that treatment and then they listen to what we say and how we react. Communication with these growing boys is key. We (moms and dads) need to speak up, speak out and guide these young men.

We also need to be real with regards to what happens in schools and socially (it's not like it was in our day). It's complex, but I would have to agree that parenting (with this scenario) is key. 

Also see: "No means no": How this teacher explains consent to 3-year-olds in the sweetest way

Lee says: South Africans need to get over their shyness regarding talking about sex, especially when talking to their kids. We as parents need to talk to them about sex, sexuality, responsibility, consent, respect etc. in a non-awkward, non-judgmental, non-preachy way.

My boys know that no means no, maybe means no, I don’t know means no. Even yes, said in an unsure voice, means no. If it’s not a definite clear yes then it’s no.

We need to bring up our kids from toddlerhood to be confident people who can handle rejection and stand up for their beliefs regardless of what others say. We can’t teach this when they are teens.

We need to teach it from when they can construct complete sentences. We need to teach them that actions have consequences, as does inaction. We need to answer their questions honestly and factually, making sure they know the difference between facts, morals, and religious beliefs.

We need to make sure that they are strong, compassionate, confident, knowledgeable, and street-smart before they become teens - if you leave it to age 12+ then it’s too late.

Penny says: I had to have this discussion with my son last week, explaining what is going on and why, etc. I have asked him to think before he says anything - how would he feel if someone was saying whatever about his sister or me. If he would not be happy to hear that about us - he should quite simply not say it.

This is an ongoing conversation. There is no magic bullet, there is no one program or intervention or organisation that will end this crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa overnight. 

But, we can hope that as parents we can build a new generation of healthy young men in a culture of inclusivity, acceptance and mutual respect. 

Chat back:

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Read more:

How #MeToo and #AmInext will impact parenting in 2019 

How empathy can make or break a troll

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