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We all know about “mean girls:” They talk behind each other’s backs, exclude other kids just to be catty, and cut off friendships with no warning or explanation. But what about mean boys? New research finds that they might be even more common than we think.
The study, published recently in the journal Aggressive Behavior, analyzed how kids spread rumors and socially reject and exclude others. Researchers at the University of Georgia surveyed 620 students annually between sixth grade and high school and found that a whopping 96 percent of students had spread rumors or said something nasty about another kid — and the behavior was more common among boys. Girls, on the other hand, were more likely to fall victim to such behavior, which the researchers call “relational aggression.”
Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, says people have the impression that girls are “meaner” due to a misconception that girls are more emotionally attuned than boys. “People think that boys are less psychologically mature, but in fact they are just as emotionally and relationally astute as girls,” Way tells Yahoo Parenting. “Plus, boys don’t fall into that false girl culture of ‘I’ll be nice to your face and slam you behind your back.’ Boys have brutal honesty and brutal meanness.”
According to Way, American norms of masculinity unfairly dictate that boys shouldn’t take things too seriously, which accounts for a lot of the aggressive behavior in boys. “The idea with boys is that if you take things too seriously, you’re lame,” she says. “So the brutality is always framed within ‘Dude, it was just a joke.’ Plus, with boys, there’s this notion that the meaner your joke or the more crude your comment, the more macho you are, especially when the comments are aimed at girls.”
Parents of boys should try to combat mean behavior at a young age, Way says. “The first thing parents should do, as soon as their kids can talk, is foster a home climate where feelings and relationships are openly discussed,” Way says. “Aim conversations toward empathy – like how it might feel to be picked on or isolated in school.” Way says she uses her own struggles as starting points for conversations with her teenage kids, with topics such as how it makes her feel when a friend doesn’t respond to a phone call or when someone flakes out on plans. “I’ll just say, ‘It really makes me feel bad.’ They may not respond, but they are listening and getting the message that, ‘Oh yeah, that might feel kind of crappy.’”
Boys, especially, may be hard to engage in discussion, but Way says it’s important that parents force the conversation. “Even if a teenage boy doesn’t respond, he’s listening and absorbing. Use the time at the dinner table or in the car,” she says. “As a mom, I feel like I’m working 24/7 at helping my kids have good friendships and behave properly, but they don’t have any other guidance. Adolescents need their parents to help them make sense of what behavior is right and what is wrong.”