Are boys and violence linked by nature?

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Answered by: Rachel, An Expert in the Developing Socially Category
When my husband and I had our first son, we were determined to raise him with the gender-neutrality that our generation of parents had come to prize as a marker of good parenting. We had learned in college that biology was far from destiny, and like many of our peers, we were convinced that our boy would love dolls, fry up plastic eggs in a play kitchen, and don a pair of tights in dance class, if only we gave him the opportunity. So it came as a shock to me when, at the tender age of three, he bloomed suddenly into a full-fledged weapons-expert, begging me to get him toys and books about guns, ninjas, knights, and knives. By the time our second boy entered the picture, we had accepted that boys and violence go hand-in-hand, but we were hardly prepared for the wrestling, fighting, and competing that would soon turn our house into a constant battleground.

While common wisdom and crime statistics strongly suggest that men are more violent than women, feminists and other cultural critics have long wanted to pin this inequity on nurture rather than nature. The idea that a culture of violence can help to mold violent individuals is sensible, but it still doesn't answer the question of why, by and large, it is boys who are thus molded. That boys and violence naturally go together does not mean that nature is the only, or even the most important, factor in creating a violent society.

Nurture is not only the home environment, including the child's relationship with parents and siblings, but also culture, the larger society in which the child grows up. Child advocates worry endlessly that we live in a "culture of violence," where Hollywood movies glorify power and machismo, and video games, with their adolescent male bloodlust, encourage an insensitivity to real lives, or worse, a confusion between the reality of pain and its virtual manifestations.

But here is the good news: if you keep your child safe and let him know that he is loved, protected, and understood, he will not turn out to be a mass murderer just by watching "The Dark Knight" and playing Grand Theft Auto. (Though if you're a good parent, you'll keep him away from first-person shooters as long as you can, though maybe not as long as you had hoped you could.) Here's the bad news: being a good parent is a tough job, especially when, like me, you regularly come into the living room to find your sons locked in a wrestling match which started as a game and will inevitably end in tears and band-aids.

Of course, there is a wide range of "natural" behaviors manifest in both boys and girls, many of which overlap. There are plenty of spirited girls out there, and plenty of soft-spoken, gentle boys. And when I despair of my own sons' penchant for savagery, I am heartened by the example of my husband, whose childhood was spent in the woods of Wisconsin, BB gun in hand, playing a soldier at war with his older brother and tearing up what little peace his mother could establish. He turned out to be the most peace-loving, gentle, and kind of men, and I know that even though my boys are violent by nature, through nurture they will almost certainly turn out to be humane and tender adults.

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