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Why boys are more likely to be violent — and what can we do to stop it

Boys don't know how to express their emotions, and we may be too permissive with the few we expect them to feel: anger and frustration.
Image: Parkland memorial
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students for a moment of silence at a memorial for victims on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.Taimy Alvarez / Zuma Press

Violent crimes are not exclusively the acts of boys and men — any argument that suggests that would be guilty of glaring oversights — but there's no question that men greatly outnumber women as perpetrators. And when you consider mass school shootings like those at Parkland, Columbine and Sandy Hook, you'll note that these men were very young, scarcely more than boys. Again, this isn't to exclude females (take the 2015 brutal beating of a teen girl by her peers in a Brooklyn McDonald's as one example of how horrifically savage the so-called fairer sex can be), but again, girls are the exception and not the rule.

Last week, the comedian Michael Ian Black wrote in the New York Times: "What do these shootings have in common? Guns, yes. But also, boys. Girls aren’t pulling the triggers. It’s boys. It’s almost always boys."

What makes boys more inclined toward violence and what can we do to stop it? It’s a vast and complicated issue, but in part it comes down to an enduring stereotype that boys can’t or shouldn’t feel emotions as expansively or openly as girls. As Black points out in his essay, "It’s no longer enough to “be a man” — we no longer even know what that means." But there is a way to help.

"The bottom line is that we need to turn the light on to the fact that we parent, educate and generally treat our boys and girls differently. This is a global issue, not just an American one," says psychologist Teodora Pavkovic. "Boys are seen as incapable of experiencing a full range of emotions (or alternatively, certain cultures simply prefer it if they didn't), and so we tend to not speak to them about emotions nearly as much, and we tend to only be permissive with the couple of emotions we expect them to display, primarily anger and frustration. This has led to the creation of not just misconceptions such as 'emotions are girly' and 'boys don't cry,' but to many generations of men with devastatingly poor emotional diversity, awareness and literacy.”

We parent, educate and generally treat our boys and girls differently.

Generate Self-Awareness

First as parents, we need to tackle our own ideas about gender, and this means doing some self-examination.

Start off by writing: ‘Boys should...’ and see what comes up.

“Our unconscious biases direct our behavior in powerful ways, and even though you may be certain that you have no gender biases whatsoever, you may be surprised by the nuances of how these biases operate,” says Pavkovic. “Set some time aside to sit alone with your thoughts and explore the beliefs and rules you have around what it means to you to raise a boy. You can start off by writing: ‘Boys should...’ and see what comes up. The most important thing to remember with this exercise is to not be judgmental of yourself; these beliefs and rules have been passed on to you, possibly just as unconsciously as you yourself are now passing them on to your child.”

Practice What You Preach

We all want to be positive role models for our children, but to do so we have to practice what we preach to a T. “If we want our sons to be able to talk about their feelings and engage with us and tell us what's wrong instead of stomping off, we have to model that behavior for them,” Dr. Doreen Arcus, associate professor of psychology at UMassLowell, tells NBC News BETTER. Ask what’s wrong, but also say something about what’s bothering you when you’re in a bad mood. Specifics aren’t necessary, but communication is.

These beliefs and rules have been passed on to you, possibly just as unconsciously as you yourself are now passing them on to your child.

Additionally: put away the screens. “If we want kids to have conversations without screens, we have to do the same,” says Joshua Jabin, chief of staff at the Travis Manion Foundation.

The goal here is to create an environment in the home where one doesn’t self-isolate or hide their feelings.

Provide Explanation, Engagement and Consequences

Discipline is a key ingredient of any parenting regimen, but it’s important to think about how you discipline. Punishments that are frightening or that children don’t quite understand are never the way to go.

“Be affectionate and warm with your child, but set limits and be the disciplinarian. For example, if your child lied to you, rather than yelling at them, spanking them, or saying, ‘Don’t you dare lie to me again,’ parents should explain, engage and set consequences. This [response] could look like ‘What is going on? Lying hurts people. We have to figure out a consequence for this. You lied about whether you took her comic book so I think next week no comics. Discipline doesn’t have to be harsh and nurturance doesn’t have to be permissive.”

Arcus adds that it’s important to exchange eye contact with your child, ask how they’re feeling and to share your own feelings.

Don’t Scold Your Child Into Bottling His Anger

While no one recommends that you allow your child to throw temper tantrums whenever they want, it’s important to let them express their anger, especially when they’re in their adolescent years. Jesse McCarthy, owner of Montessori Education shares this practical example: “Say a teenager comes home fuming about how unfair his ‘jerk’ teacher's grading is. A parent's response should not be, ‘We don’t use language like that in this house!’ or 'Maybe your teacher is just trying to help you to get better,' for this just tells a child to hide his anger and that his real emotions aren’t important.”

Discipline doesn’t have to be harsh and nurturance doesn’t have to be permissive.

A response like, “it sounds like you’re really angry at your teacher, that he did something to really upset you,” better supports healthy emotional development, McCarthy says.

Encourage Friendships With Girls

Dr. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and the author of "Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era" notes that 25 years ago when he went into a classroom and asked how many of the kids had friendships with the opposite sex “about 10 percent would raise their hand.” But today, “you won’t find one kid who doesn’t have a friend of the opposite sex.”

Encourage these friendships. “It’s important to have good friends that aren’t just bros that you have to be cool around, but can really talk to,” he adds. And it’s important to keep breaking down those gender walls.

Look Out For Red Flags

Every parent's goal should be to have your kids come to you if something is really wrong (like if they’re being bullied or experiencing depression), but that may not always be the case. Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster care expert and consultant says to look out for the following red flags.

  • Sudden mood swings
  • Sudden change in attitudes (for instance, they were eating dinner with the family every night and suddenly stop)
  • Self isolation for long periods of time.

If your child exhibits these or any other concerning signs, reach out for help immediately. If you can’t afford a private therapist, your child’s school must provide services of some kind. Dr. Arcus also recommends checking out the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “They provide resources that can be really useful,” she says.

We’re Improving, But These Stereotypes Still Hurt Us

Surely we have collective work ahead of us as a society, but these strategies can help — and any parent or guardian can implement them be they “a single mom or two dads,” says Dr. Kimmel, adding: “It’s not the package that matters; it’s the content.” Even if you don't have children, we can all be of service in this effort; after all, there are a lot of children out there in need of support.

“Consider being a tutor, a mentor, giving school supplies or providing transportation to doctor and therapy appointments for foster kids,” urges Dr. DeGarmo. “There are children in need in every community, children who have not had that unconditional love, that parental figure and stability, and we can all help them out."

NEXT: How to talk to your kids about violence at school

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