Boys' Behavior: Why Boys Behave the Way They Do
By Troy Parrish
He is active, he likes to jump and climb, and he can't stay
focused on anything other than the computer, game system or his
skate board and seems too distracted to listen. He gets into
things and he takes things apart, he likes to pick at his sister.
He dislikes his school work and can be disruptive in the
classroom. He loves noise and finds sitting still to be the
ultimate challenge. Is he attention deficit? Is he hyperactive? Or
could it be that he is simply a normal boy?
The behavior of boys
is of growing concern, particularly when you consider that a
significantly larger number of boys are medicated to control their
behavior, males make up the overwhelming percentage of our prison
population, that a larger number of boys are failing at school and
are dropping out and there are more women than men in degree
programs after high school. What is going on with boys and why
does he act the way he does? What drives male behavior?
A growing body of evidence suggests that male behavior is
driven by his biology as much as it is shaped by his
socialization. Research into the development of the male and
female brain is beginning to yield interesting results which
suggests that the development that occurs during pregnancy goes a
long way in shaping male and female behavior. Briefly, all
children start off anatomically identical. It is the introduction
of additional male hormones (Androgens), triggered by the Y
chromosome, in the child after about week 8 of development that
begins the development of males. This introduction of androgens at
particular levels is not only responsible for development of the
sexual organs in males but also the differences in male and female
bodies in terms of muscle mass and fat disposition.
The presence of these hormones is also responsible for changes
in the brain in terms of structure and possibly how the brain is
“wired”. These changes in the developing brain suggest that the
reasons that boys and girls act so differently is partially due to
the biology of the brain. Some differences between boys and girls
are: boy's attention span is shorter than girls, boys are more
adept at learning spatially than girls, boys need more physical
movement to learn than girls do, and boys brains need more rest
An interesting piece of research showed that male and female
toddlers respond to a problem differently. Toddlers were placed on
one side of a clear wall approximately three feet tall and their
mothers were placed on the other side of the wall. When the
toddlers wanted to get to their mothers they ran into the
obstruction. Girls had a tendency to cry and verbalize towards
their mother in response to this dilemma while boys had a tendency
to try to climb the wall, push at it or try to find a way around
or under the obstruction.
This demonstrates a tendency for girls to use interaction as a
way of solving the problem while boys wanted to do use some form
of action to solve the problem. In the absences of socialization
to explain this difference, this is supportive evidence that male
and female biology influences behavior. Another piece of medical
evidence that supports this notion of biology influencing behavior
is a medical condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia or
CAH in which the fetus is exposed to unusual levels of androgens
during development. Girls that suffer from this disorder have
behaviors that we typically associate with boys and end up
expressing interest in male typical activities and careers.
This evidence supports the notion that the presence of a
particular level of male hormones in development influences the
behavior of boys including the types of toys they play with, the
types of activities they typically enjoy and the career choices
Differences between males and females in visual-spatial
ability, word usage and recognition and different brain activity
during problem solving also suggest that there are fundamental
differences between how the brains of males and females work. This
difference can also be seen when particular areas of the brain are
damaged. When the same area of the brain is damaged in men and
women the effects of the damage is different in men and women. But
this is only true of certain parts of the brain. Damage other
parts of the brain and the effects are the same in men and women.
Subtle differences in brain structure between males and females
can be noted in a very few parts of the brain. These subtle
structural differences coupled with the differences in brain
activity during problem resolution would suggest that the
differences in male and female behavior is a function both of how
the brain is structured as well as how it is wired or how it
There is also evidence that when it comes to academic
performance that the distribution of girls along a bell shaped
curve show a greater tendency to fall towards the average while
boys distribution curve has a tendency to fall along a greater
distribution along the curve, the average is the same for boys and
girls but the distribution is different. In other words, more
girls have a tendency to be clumped more around the average point
while boys have a tendency to spread out more evenly. This means
that more boys are going to be at the head of the class but there
will also be more boys with difficulties than girls.
Applied to behavior, this would suggest that we can expect more
girls to act in a way that is considered average for children that
age and that there is going to be a certain level of homogeneity
with girls. With boys we can expect to see more variability among
boys, some behaving in an average fashion, but more that struggle
than girls. What this does is that it has a tendency to really
isolate the boys that fall in the “struggle” category because
there is a body of boys in the average group and a large number of
girls in the average group.
What this difference in brain development is that boys act the
way they do because they are built to act that way. A boy's
development is a central aspect of a boy's behavior. Boys are
built to be more active, to test the limits of their physical
strength, to throw things to see how it flies, to explore the
woods or the insides of the computer, to seek new things to grab
their interests, to take on a challenge, to compete with one
another, to learn by doing and by experiment, and to try to fix
Take that boy and put him into a setting in which he is
expected to sit still for long periods of time and to learn
through having someone talk to him, want to have him play quietly
in the house and pay attention to his homework, to express himself
by talking and you begin to see the dilemma that is being created
for that boy and for those who are trying to enforce this
structure. This structure is not allowing for how this child is
created to operate, it pushes him towards “girl” behavior. Have
enough of this constraint and you will begin to get school
failure, school resistance, disruptive behavior and possibly
rebellious behavior. So what can we do?
Appreciate that boys are built for activity. This activity
must be accounted for when we are creating structure for our
boys. Give boys an opportunity to move, make activity a part of
a task as much as possible. Provide time to be active at regular
intervals to keep the wiggles under control. Give the boys the
more active chores to do at home and in the classroom.
Recognize that the attention span of a boy is going to be
shorter when he is not particularly interested in a subject.
When teaching boys, keeping tasks and subjects as short as can
be and still achieve the objective of the task will help.
Breaking things into parts with intervals of activity between
can also be useful. Keeping homework to a limited amount can
also be very helpful in terms of compliance and completion.
Take advantage of his natural curiosity to help him build
his strengths. Build into his exploration topics or lessons in
which he may not necessarily be interested. Appreciate that his
natural curiosity will serve him well in his life.
Help him find appropriate ways to test his strength as well
as his desire to compete. Don't try to train this out of him,
this will only damage him. Instead, help him to see that there
can be fun and beneficial ways of demonstrating his capacity to
others and to himself.
Encourage the efforts he makes, not his ability or his
talent. Some recent research shows that encouragement of effort
is far more effective in development of perseverance and a
positive self image than praising a child for his intelligence
or raw ability.
When talking to him recognize that being active during that
talk helps him absorb what you are saying (providing the
activity is not too engaging). Taking a child on a walk or
allowing him to color while you talk can be very helpful. Don't
always expect a boy to look you in the eyes when you are
disciplining him, he finds this embarrassing. By doing these
things you are teaching him to express his feelings through
talking rather than always by action.
Recognize that boys bond by doing things with other boys,
and with you as well. Don't expect a boy to want to simply talk
to you for the purpose of enjoyment and growing closer to you.
He will come to you to talk to you about a problem. Keep it
brief, talk too much and he will tune you out. If you wish to
get closer to a boy, do things with him.
Don't compare him to other boys, either directly to him or
even in your own mind. Remember, there is greater variability
among boys than there are girls. Learn to appreciate the boy for
who he is created to be.
Troy L Parrish, MA LCPC is a therapist in private practice in the Columbia, Maryland area. He has been in practice
for over 17 years and has significant clinical experience working with children who have either behavioral or
attention problems. In his years of working with this population he has developed a system that helps parents and
students organize, keep track of and maintain accountability for their homework. You can read more about this system
at his web site www.homeworkkeeper.com