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Raising Boys

Home » Active or Aggressive Boys? »

Understanding Boy Aggression

Aggression Has Become a Label

Aggression Has Become a Label

"Calling boys 'aggressive' is an attempt to punitively try and control behavior we are not comfortable with. We rarely use this word in a positive way, so when we start by calling boys' behavior 'aggressive' we are already prejudicing how we look at it. Children use their bodies and express their feelings by pushing, grabbing, and fighting. This is age-appropriate for young children they are in the motor stage of development. Teachers and parents need to help children find ways to resolve these conflicts. But the problem isn't that boys have these impulses and interests; the problem is that we over-react."

Joseph Tobin, Ph.D.

Professor of Early Childhood Education, Arizona State University

What did the boys play at recess today? Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader. Batman vs. the bad guys. And Batman won.

In most games, young boys clobber, kill, or cream someone. If four girls are playing house in a preschool classroom, it's not uncommon for four boys to go in and rob them. These games and fantasies, while disturbing to some, are not unusual. In fact, they are the norm. However if someone gets hurt during this play, a boy gets in trouble and is often labeled aggressive. But is he? And is this cause for concern?

What does it mean to be aggressive? According to Webster's Dictionary, aggression is "a forceful action… the process of making attacks… hostile, injurious, behavior… caused by frustration." Real life boy examples include physical fighting, name-calling, and rough-housing that results in injury. Aggression is part of the human repertoire. "All human beings have the ability to protect themselves and attack others when in danger," explains Thompson.

Why do boys become aggressive? Sometimes boys are aggressive because they are frustrated or because they want to win. Sometimes they are just angry and can't find another way to express that feeling. And some may behave aggressively, but they're not aggressive all the time.

An active boy is not necessarily an aggressive one. "We often see young boys playing out aggressive themes. It's only a problem when it gets out of control," comments Thompson.

Competition, power and success are the true stuff of boys' play. Many young boys see things in competitive terms and play games like "I can make my marble roll faster than yours,""my tower is taller than yours" and "I can run faster than you." But these games of power and dominance are not necessarily aggressive unless they are intended to hurt.

Fantasy play is not aggressive. A common boy fantasy about killing bad guys and saving the world is just as normal as a common girl fantasy about tucking in animals and putting them to bed. "Most boys will pick up a pretzel and pretend to shoot with it," comments teacher Jane Katch. "If a boy is playing a game about super heroes, you might see it as violent. But the way he sees it, he's making the world safe from the bad guys. This is normal and doesn't indicate that anything is wrong unless he repeatedly hurts or tries to dominate the friends he plays with. And sometimes an act that feels aggressive to one child was actually intended to be a playful action by the child who did it. When this happens in my class, we talk about it, so one child can understand that another child's experience may be different than his own. This is the way empathy develops."

Only a small percentage of boys' behavior is truly aggressive. While "all boys have normal aggressive impulses which they learn to control, only a small percentage are overly aggressive and have chronic difficulty controlling those impulses," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. These are the boys who truly confuse fantasy with reality, and frequently hit, punch, and bully other kids. They have a lack of impulse control and cannot stop themselves from acting out. "They cannot contain their anger and have little control over their physical behavior and this is when intervention by parent or teacher is needed," says Thompson.

Boys and Guns

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