Why are boys so physical?
May 23, 2006 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Boys! And their manifestation of physical energy + why do they have a love/hate relationship with trying to kill each other?

I am a mother of all boys and I'd like to understand their behavior better. Sometimes I'm concerned about the way they behave with each other and not sure where/when/if/how to set limits. My husband always tries to calm me down with "that's just the way boys are and need to be."

So I'm curious, and would love some insight on young male behavior. Our boys are close, they show lots of affection towards each other, they defend one another - yet nearly every day they seem to also wish to kill each other. What is going on?

For example - they will put each other in choke holds, laugh uproarishly, throw each other to the ground, wrestle, laugh, chase each other - then 5 minutes late one of them is furious about the very same actions (choking, wrestling, etc.) - and the real fight and angry tears begin. I don't understand this, and I'm beginning to dread when they start this physcial 'playfulness'.

Same thing happens when they wrestle around with Dad - all laughter and fun until someone (boy) gets mad about something - and then I have to deal with the fallout.

Also, every evening between dinner and preparing for bed, they seem to have a huge surge of physical energy - running, jumping, generally being very physcial - this time of day doesn't always lead to a fight but I'm curious about why it happens.

I'm wondering if this is proper behavior to allow, if it should be tempered somehow, if it's just normal boy behavior that shouldn't be stiffled. It just doesn't seem very civilized to me and makes me feel nervous.

Some background - I was raised with all girls (and Dad), we didn't have very many hair pulling, slapping fights. We were affectionate and physically gentle with each other (my sons are more likely to give me a light punch in the arm than to give me a hug - though they do hug).

My husband was raised with all brothers, single hardworking, tough-minded mother, absent father. He claims he and his brothers acted the same and even much worse (and they've all turned out to be well-mannered upstanding citizens).

And the boys are much different when alone - more calm. It seems as if things begin to get more physically 'active' when more than one boy is together. They behave well in public but I've seen this same physical stuff start up when they meet a friend while we're out.

Any insights for me?
posted by LadyBonita to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How old are they?
posted by inigo2 at 7:58 AM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: All are under age 10.
posted by LadyBonita at 8:04 AM on May 23, 2006

I've got 2 young boys too, they exhibit the same insanity. Obviously, it's quite normal. The lesson we try to start introducing is that you stop when the other person doesn't want to play rough anymore - and that it's never, ever ok to kick, hit or bite someone. They can wrestle and throw pillows at each other all day but the minute someone throws a punch, or decides they don't want to play anymore the game is over. You know, standard-issue golden rule stuff.

Its a delicate balance of letting them play rough, but not play bully. We have found great value in those nerf dart guns.
posted by glenwood at 8:26 AM on May 23, 2006

My three nephews behave like this as well. They are 11, 8 and 6. The oldest is starting to grow out of it a bit, but every once in a while their play gets out of hand.

They'll be happily play fighting until an accident happens, someone goes too far or someone's frustration reaches their breaking point. The middle one gets very angry, very fast which usually results in yelling and hitting with more serious intent. The youngest ends up getting hurt and running to an adult.

I really think that play fighting is natural for young boys and should be tolerated up to a certain point. The boys need to learn the difference between play and "for real" and that intentionally trying to hurt each other is a punishable offense.

Of course, IANA parent. I am just the uncle who gets to avoid all of the real parenting tasks.
posted by utsutsu at 8:27 AM on May 23, 2006

This is probably little help, but I grew up with two brothers, one on either side of me. The older one was very rough on the younger one, to the point where the younger one's nose got broken after being thrown into a chair (or so the story goes). This was when they were very young - now, the three of us live together and those two get along perfectly.

I think your boys will be fine, but I would just watch to make sure one of the boys isn't predominantly the one being picked on, or always the bully, or whatever.
posted by bibbit at 8:31 AM on May 23, 2006

Temple Grandin drew a lot of parallels between people and animals in this book. One of them was about puppies playing, and how they will mock fight up to a point when one or the other yelps, at which point they back off or start fighting for real. I believe she said this process was actually good because it teaches those involved what each other's limits are as well as what is acceptable behavior and what isn't... unfortunatly you are just in the middle of it all. The part that needs changing is the progession to a fight, since the play fighting actually sounds useful (though I'm a guy, so maybe thats just me).

Anyway, I suspect the solution is for you and your husband to confront the children as a group and tell them that you need them to help you by agreeing to communicate with each other and say when enough is enough, and to back off when that point has been reached. At the moment they know those are the rules, but they are unstated so doubts exist which can turn into fights. I don't have brothers though so I suspect "the rules" need to be said with different terms. Coming from you (the mother) they should respect you enough to not scowl at it, or scowl to save face but still do it. You've just got to make sure you and your husband have the plan clear because the children will be following his lead in all of this.

After a week or two, if its working, tell them you got the advice from people who work with dogs. :-)

Everyone's advice is great. The ban on biting is really important... that always seemed to set me off at the neighbors. Gets me angry now just remembering it.
posted by jwells at 8:33 AM on May 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just look at any romance movie pretty much. When the women are crying on the bathroom floor, the men are punching something.
posted by vanoakenfold at 8:39 AM on May 23, 2006

When I was ten I used to beat the crap out of my younger brother who was five at the time. My mom got very upset about our fights because she was the youngest of five sisters and couldn't really understand it - my father was the oldest brother in his family and had to calm her down a lot. When I turned 12 or so, I stopped initiating fights and so my brother began to - even though he'd inevitably lose.

Every friend I had with a little brother (curiously, all my childhood friends were firstborn) did the exact same thing - beat the tar out of their brothers until they hit puberty. After that they just began fighting back until the younger brother hit puberty at which point the fights mostly stopped.

In short: it's a phase that nearly all boys go through, and they'll grow out of it. That they don't hug YOU is the only thing that would concern me - everything else is pretty normal although the frequency sounds a tad high. That may be due to the fact that you've got three boys, though.
posted by Ryvar at 8:45 AM on May 23, 2006

While people love to view themselves as holier than all else -- we are in fact animals.

As has been mentioned above, all animals play fight. It's instinctive "training" for later on when they'll have to hunt for food or learn to not become it.

Good advice has been given above about allowing this play fighting, but saying that the game is over once someone throws an actual punch/kick/etc.

Just make it clear to your children that there needs to be respect and restraint when they're play fighting, and that you'll be there to enforce that. Then follow through on the enforcement.

An alternative would be to find other activities that would distract them and capture their attention more than the play fighting, but I'd say a certain amount of this is completely normal and shouldn't alarm you too much.
posted by twiggy at 8:46 AM on May 23, 2006

OP, your situation sounds very much like the family dynamic of my childhood, and today my two brothers and I are each other's best friends. (The one difference is I'm female.) I think it's a good omen that your husband and brothers-in-law are good people.

Is it possible to channel some of that energy into sports? Martial arts in particular would be a useful way to develop self-control skills and learn to "read" other people better. The bonus for nervous moms is that any butt-kicking generally involves protective padding. :-)

Also, to ask the obvious (which you've no doubt already thought of, but I'll offer it anyway), could the energy surge in the evenings be in some part due to diet considerations?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:15 AM on May 23, 2006

Younger brother, here. My older brother (4 years) and I used to have some nasty fights when we were young - like, I was maybe 10 or so. It usually started over who got to control what we watched on TV in the afternoon. We didn't punch each other, really, just lots of forceful wrestling.

By the time he left for college? We were the best buddies in the world and still are.
posted by dnash at 9:20 AM on May 23, 2006

You've just described me and my brothers as kids, only I'm a female. I don't know if it was me being drawn into the 'boys will be boys' thing (which is often encouraged subtly or less subtly by other people, including parents - I'm not saying that's your case, of course I can't know that!, just that I've seen it happen a lot), or we were all simply too lively, or perhaps it was just the, um, stress of living under the same roof and competing for resources, if I may put it that way.

It was strictly between siblings though, not with friends and not outside the house. That's one thing that I see as a bigger problem if it gets out of hand. Which doesn't mean that as long as it's between brothers anything is fair game, of course.

Do make efforts to teach them to keep it fun and avoid anyone getting hurt (what glenwood said about the rule for limits). Also, encourage physical activity and sports that will keep them busy and tire them out so they no longer want/have the energy to mess with each other (I remember many of those playful - in intent! - wrestling fights that turned serious started out of pure boredom). Even better, if possible, and if they're interested, sign them up for some judo or karate or whatever else allows them a more direct but guided outlet for the aggressivity.

If accidents still happen and one of them comes crying to you, blame them all for letting things spiral out of control (given that they seem to be equal participants rather than one tormenting the others). Avoid validating that behaviour, but don't draw too much attention to it either, but you probably know all this already.
posted by funambulist at 9:25 AM on May 23, 2006

My twin brother and I were best friends until we hit about the age of six. I actually get a bit embarrassed at what we put our parents through after that age. We slammed each others heads of bunk beds, punched, kicked, wrestled, threw things at each other. You name it, we did it. Sometimes it would be good natured, then turn nasty, sometimes the other way round. Essentially, looking back, it seems to me that we were working out frustrations (life could be difficult at times with our mother, who has had recurring mental illness throughout our lives), and also, if I'm honest a safe environment to build confidence. We were both pretty shy, geeky kids, going to a a pretty tough junior and senior school. All our wrasslin' was a way for us to build up confidence, both in ourselves and each other, and we never had any significant problems with the bullies at school, while a few of the only-children I knew definitely did. Occasionally one of us would really hurt the other, and then it would get bitter, painful and very scary for our parents. One day when we were about sixteen we had an almighty punchup that ended up with us both sitting on the lawn outside our house, gasping for breath and staring at each other. I said to him 'if we keep doing this we're going to kill each other'. He nodded, we never fought physically again, left for uni and are now really, really good friends. That's not to say your boys will keep fighting this way til they leave home! As a side note, SuperSquirrel's suggestion is an excellent one - when I took up judo my brother's attacks suddenly became a lot less effective. Of course, he took up karate later, and can now categorically kick my ass. Thankfully we're both in our mid-twenties now, so it's a battle of wits rather than feet n' hands.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:30 AM on May 23, 2006

Perfectly normal. I'm the oldest of three brothers, and we had some glorious rowdedows, during one of which my middle brother (who later became a philosphy major and part-time Buddhist and is now a mild-mannered executive) slammed my chin down on the edge of the kitchen counter perfectly, so that it split and there was blood all over. Good times!

Of course, my mother grew up with a passel o' brothers and no sisters, so it didn't bother her all that much—or if it did, she didn't let us see it. She just separated the combatants as necessary. Try to exhibit a stoic attitude even if you don't feel it, and keep telling yourself this too shall pass.
posted by languagehat at 10:22 AM on May 23, 2006

Oh, your actual question was "why," wasn't it? Damned if I know, but it probably has something to do with evolution.
posted by languagehat at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2006

As best as I can remember, we were like this too. Play fighting really is fun -- it only gets serious when someone is in real pain.

They lash out, and suddenly everyone realises it's serious. Either it stops pretty quickly after that, or the real fight begins.

Then someone will cry, and all the others will try to calm them down, in an effort to prevent them going to mum and telling. This part's pretty important, as it's how everyone learns to make friends again.

It sounds to me like you're stepping in before that bit, and they're not making up themselves. Try to back off a bit, let them make up, and if it doesn't happen one of them will come to you with the grudge. At which point you force them to make up (we all had to shake hands and apologise) and the humiliation makes everyone more invested in sorting it out themselves next time.

This also helps them to learn how far they can push it, and when to pull their punches. If it's going to real fights all the time, every time, you're definitely stepping in too early, before they can work this out.

Like others have said, the only thing you have to watch for is bullying. But you'll know that's going on, because it will manifest itself outside the fights -- you'll see one being picked on at dinner, or for the best seat in the car, or becoming withdrawn. It's at those points you step in. The physical stuff isn't really to be worried about -- after all, they all know who is strongest anyway.
posted by bonaldi at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone! I suppose 'why' isn't so important as it appears to be one of those mysteries of maleness. I'm relieved to know that it's completely normal and I'll try my best to be calmer about it (it's just seems sooo foreign to me, but everyone's thoughts have helped me feel more comfortable).

I will also speak to my husband about us concentrating more on teaching them to stop when one doesn't want to continue. I think he will be relieved to have me relax about the roughhousing and I know I'll relax significantly knowing this is normal AND there is a limit to tolerate.

I'm also very glad to know there is a purpose to all of this - to me it seems a very strange way to communicate or have fun but I can tell by many of the comments that there is actually learning going on.

They always do make up - often within seconds. And I've overheard them negotiating about not telling mom. When they do come to me or I have to step in, and I'm feeling devilish, I'll have them apologize and kiss.
posted by LadyBonita at 11:02 AM on May 23, 2006

I'm a girl, but my younger brother and I had exactly the same relationship (with similar courtesies extended to some of his closest friends). I think it's more "kids will be kids" than "boys will be boys." It starts because they're bored, or because one wants the internet and the other has it, or because one was blowing on the other -- it doesn't really matter.

I think the main problem is to keep them from killing each other now; I wouldn't worry about whether or not they'll grow out of it, because they almost certainly will. Once I went away to college, my brother and I settled down a lot more -- some casual abuse, but mostly joking name-calling, and we get along well now.

We're still okay with fists in the ribs, tickling that can get a bit violent, noogies -- that kind of thing. At any stage, biting is not okay, drawing blood is not okay, and full-out murderous rage shouldn't be okay either. You might want to try teaching them that it's only all right as long as everyone still wants to play.

Probably at some point, one will learn how to de-escalate the fight. When my brother started getting bigger and stronger than I was, I learned I could sneak up and give him a noogie, then go limp and laugh, and he'd stop after a couple of payback punches. You could go the other route, and teach one or all a martial art (in hopes they'll learn to choose their fights), but I'm not sure that will turn out well; worst case, the oldest will catch on quickest and be able to beat up his younger brothers more efficiently.

Fighting like this probably isn't very civilized, but I don't think that's a big problem. They're kids, so they get to goof off and be immature. And they probably aren't big on hugs at this stage, so roughhousing allows them physical contact.

If it bugs you, I would get them to exclude you. For example, my brother and I would never have punched my mother's arm, even gently -- she was definitely seen as above that. You may want to clarify that that kind of behavior is all right for siblings, but not for grownups or Mom and Dad.

I think it's also key that they grow up to respect each other. For example, I learned a couple of programming languages, and when my brother got really into computers, he always asked my advice about if-then loops or whatever. It doesn't matter if the topic's woodworking or soccer or math or anything else. What matters is that he started to see me as a person with a clue, rather than as just a stupid old sister.

On preview: The don't-tell-Mom negotiations strike me as a good thing (as long as they're hiding roughhousing, not broken bones or vases). It shows they're a federation of siblings, and ultimately on the same side.
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:18 AM on May 23, 2006

Kids need a TON of physical activity. I think we forget how much. If this was 200 yrs ago and you guys lived on a farm you would be the envy of all your neigbors bc of having boys with such over the top physical energy. I like the idea of channeling this into sports too. Some coaches are really good at teaching the rules of civilized behavior, how to be physical without it turning into a fight. They've seen this before.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:33 AM on May 23, 2006

Also read: Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women. It goes a lot into brain chemistry and developmental differences (though it's a very accessible book). I think you'd find it fascinating...
posted by jdroth at 12:12 PM on May 23, 2006

I come from a family of three boys, and, like everyone else who's replied, you're describing my childhood.

They're fighting because they're frustrated or bored or simply because it feels good to flail your limbs around as hard as you can. Many small boys just can't sit still. They are, after all, told to sit still for hours on end at school, at church, at the dinner table. Knowing how to transform and channel that physical energy into socially acceptable activity is part of going from a child to a teen.

This is one of the reasons sports exist. Most team sports codify violence: no hitting in soccer, allowable checking in hockey, and so on. Martial arts are the ultimate expression of this, of course. If your boys enjoy them, they can help a great deal. Plus you get to be a soccer mom (wherein the secret to success is a big bag of quartered oranges).

Not all boys seem to need this safety valve. Not all boys get it from sports: any hard labour can do it. Build an addition, plant a garden (root vegetables are your friend here), go for a hike. Tired boys are happy ones, in my experience.
posted by bonehead at 2:01 PM on May 23, 2006

I was the exact opposite. I was an only child for the years that mattered (I do have a brother, but he's 11 years younger than me). My father was also an only child. Both my parents were Jewish intellectuals. In their house, we talked and read and watched movies, but we never played (or watched) spots. My parents were very physical with me, but only in a gentle way. There was never even any playful wrestling.

This was a blessing and a curse. I'm proud that I'm now a gentle adult male. I am respectful to people. I've always had tons of female friends.

But I don't know how to relate well to other straight males. I'm straight, but all of my close male friends have been gay. As soon as a group of men get together and start acting aggressively, I get nervous.

I was ruthlessly bullied at school, and when I asked my dad for advice, he would suggest witty insults to throw at the kids. Those weren't great shields against punches and kicks.

My gentleness also gave me some trouble with girls. I was generally the perfect "best friend" but rarely the lover. It took me years to understand that many girls like to be (playfully) dominated, and that sort of role is still pretty alien to me.

I know so many adult men who get into physical fights, and it's always mystifying to me. I've never been in a fight in my life (probably helps that I rarely go to bars), and this used to make me feel proud and superior. I'm still pretty happy that I don't get into fights, but it strikes me that I never have -- and probably never will -- experience a rite of my gender.

Naturally, it's hard to prove this sort of thing, but I've often suspected that my personality would be different if I'd had a brother close to my age.
posted by grumblebee at 3:04 PM on May 23, 2006

By the way, I agree with everyone here who stress the importance of teaching your boys to respect limits. I wonder if some of the "bullying" I experience as a kid was a misunderstanding. Some of it was definitely mean-spirited stuff. But maybe some of it was boys trying to engage me -- another boy -- in bonding behavior. I took it as bullying and they probably took my response as .... from another planet.
posted by grumblebee at 3:07 PM on May 23, 2006

As you've already gathered, it's perfectly normal. I'm the only girl in a family of five siblings. My brothers (especially the older three) fought like hellions. My mother would pass the smaller boy a weapon of some sort (Hot Wheel tracks come to mind) to even up the fight a bit.
posted by deborah at 5:55 PM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the continued postings. All of you, everyone, has been amazingly insightful and helpful with many good suggestions. I vote all of you as best answer!

And GB, that was a very touching story. Thank you.
posted by LadyBonita at 6:51 PM on May 23, 2006

I don't think there is necessarily a relation between that playful wrestling between brothers and getting into fights later on with other kids or even as adult males, and I believe bullying is a completely different thing.

I think there's a much more benevolent bonding aspect in the kind of siblings behaviour described here. For me there certainly was, and it was also a matter of kids vs. grownups, the fun of getting up to mischief, pretending to be a 'gang', acting out rebelliousness against our parents or other adults authority. That got channelled later on in interest in music and politics, not into fighting with other boys, that was considered very uncool because it was a thing the hooligans and fascists did. I went to school with my brothers and shared common friends, they didn't have male-only cliques, they bonded with girls too, both for friendships and relationships, so we ended up having a common wider 'gang' of friends including couples.

So much depends on personality and environment, I wouldn't infer biologically-based consequences on later development just because the little brothers are so physical with each other right now.
posted by funambulist at 2:34 AM on May 24, 2006

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