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Posted: 7th June 2023

Boys Will Be Boys

Written by Stef Bricklebank, Project Manager for young men's suicide prevention projects (11-16)

Boys will be boys is a saying bounced around, and has been my whole life, with school friends, my brothers and other adult men in my life. But how long has the saying been around? Research shows that, “The phrase boys will be boys was first recorded in English in 1589. It originated from a Latin proverb: “Children (boys) are children (boys) and do childish things.”*

But is the saying appropriate in 2023? What does it even mean?

In my childhood it was an excuse for negative or bad behaviour; Johnny just planted a right punch on Antony… well ‘boys will be boys!’. No discussion of why Johnny hit Antony,. No understanding of why the anger was there in the first place from Johnny and what that means for him as a human. Just a dismissive term used to end the situation and move on.

This approach and use of the saying must stop. Let’s begin to question the ‘Boys will be boys’ narrative and stop putting boys, young men and adult men into a box that enables them to get away with negative behaviour, or stops them getting help, and instead aim to explore why they presented  with their negative behaviour in the first place.

Time is typically set aside for a crying child, to nurture and understand what is wrong with them. To explore a possible outcome, to enable a better future. The same should be done for the boy who lashes out and is angry! Not living by the ‘boys will be boys’ saying, creates a space in time to see that child as a human being, not a boy who doesn’t need any help, as that is “what boys do!”. His behaviour isn’t because he is a boy, he’s a human before he is a boy and human beings feel all emotions. Fear, sadness, anger, exhilaration, pain, joy, scared and the list carries on.

Don’t categorise their behaviour by their sex, categorise it by the fact that they are human and haven’t learnt how to express their emotions yet, and need to learn another way.  Let’s stop being afraid of ‘bad behaviour’ and embrace it just as we would a crying child! We must begin to take the time to work out what is going on for them emotionally and not dismiss the bad behaviour as normal.

I am currently working on a Suicide Prevention Project at York Mind, a project funded by a local family here in Tadcaster, York.  I can’t help thinking that if boys, young males and adult maleswere encouraged to learn why they have reacted to a situation in such a way, rather than it be swept under the carpet, I truly believe the suicide rate in grown men would improve.

Here are the latest suicide statistics, including suicide and self-harm:

  • Over 700,000 people take their own life each year – that’s one person every 40 seconds (World Health Organization)
  • 115 people die by suicide in the UK every week – with 75% of those deaths being male (ONS)
  • 1 in 5 people have suicidal thoughts (NHS Digital)
  • 1 in 14 people self-harm (NHS Digital)
  • 1 in 15 people attempt suicide (NHS Digital)
  • Males aged 45-49 have the highest suicide rate (Samaritans)
  • 10% of young people self-harm (Mental Health Foundation)**

These statistics are shocking, and we’ve got to change this as a nation and perhaps this starts with stopping using the phrase ‘boys will be boys!’

How about boys will be:

  • Listened to and heard.
  • Given the time they need to explore and understand their feelings and behaviour.
  • Kind, honest and decent human beings.

We need nurturing and safe environments to create spaces in time where honest and open conversations can happen for young males to have difficult conversations around their feelings and thoughts. 

This is exactly what we have been doing within the ‘suicide prevention project’ here at York Mind.  The Young People’s Groups (YPG) team consists of myself, Stef Bricklebank, manager, Kelly Newton, coordinator, and two volunteers: Willem Rowley and Josh Jackson. And we have and are still offering two projects: Active Minds & My Mind On A Mural***, where we use sport or art as the platform to have difficult conversations around male mental health, where a young person will learn that, they are NOT their thoughts and they can reach out and ask for help when needed and it is NOT a weakness.

So, let’s change the way we speak to our sons, nephews, brothers, uncles, dads, husbands and encourage them to be honest with themselves about how they feel and seek help when they need to.





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