From the Archives: The Boy Code & School

I originally wrote this post in April, 2012. The recent comments about boys and ballet by Good Morning America host Lara Spencer inspired me to go back and dig this one out of the archives. It talks mainly about the impact of the boy code on scholastic achievement, but also mentions a subject I’ve long been concerned about: boys who abandon their interest in the arts because of societal implications that it is not manly enough. The research is dated but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same now as it was then.

“Why can’t as a collective people we admit that so much of the way we see the natural attributes given to boys and girls is directly a consequence of the messages that society sends?”  

That question comes from a post written on the More Compassion blog, in which the author discusses the assumption that boys are “naturally” wild and rambunctious. I posted a link to this blog on my Facebook page and it received a lot of positive feedback. It seems many people support the author’s critique of the hoary old argument that “boys will be boys” (read: loud and out of control, especially in comparison to girls who, equally stereotyped, are believed to be “naturally” quieter and more deferential.) 

The widely held notion that “boys will be boys” is problematic for a few fairly obvious reasons: it perpetuates stereotypes of boys and men as aggressive and rebellious; it excuses boys for rowdy or generally bad behaviour—a freedom not granted to girls, who are expected to behave perfectly all the time; and it calls into question the masculinity of “good” boys. It is the last point that I will address in this post, particularly as it pertains to the school environment. 

I confess that there is a personal angle here. Both of my sons have tested as above average in intelligence and both are excellent students. Given all that I have read about male stereotypes and their manifestation among children, I am concerned about how they will be treated as they progress through school, and for good reason. [NOTE: I wrote this seven years ago. It turns out that both of my sons have been fine, but both are also athletic, which, as noted below, can be a factor that helps “brainy” boys deal with the boy code.]

Children’s popular culture glorifies bratty boys who treat school with disdain while insinuating that smart, well-behaved boys are geeky or girly. As many researchers have pointed out, these pop culture lessons transfer to reality. In Real Boys, William Pollack describes a “boy code” that compels boys to prove their masculinity by acting tough and macho, engaging in risky or daring behaviour, and striving for dominance and power. The boy code also dictates that boys should avoid all “sissy stuff” (1) which, presumably, includes sitting still and listening in school.

Then there is Ellen Jordan’s “warrior discourse” which I cited in this passage in my book The Achilles Effect:

“…’the warrior discourse’ (which comes from the mass media) is the source of most boys’ understanding of masculinity. This discourse offers two extremes of masculinity. In the first position are the warriors, heroes, or leaders. The warriors’ masculinity is unquestioned and framed by the less manly behaviour of the subordinate group—the wimps and nerds…
Because they do not fit the warrior ideal, the weaker boys create their own version of masculinity, defining the term as ‘not female.’ Using this alternative definition of masculinity enables them to ‘redress insecurities and ambivalence about their ability to be male.’ In other words, the less traditionally masculine boys prove their manhood by ensuring that they never act like girls.” (2)

Again we can assume that behaving nicely is among the “girly” actions that some boys try to avoid.

Wanting to know whether my fears for my sons were founded, I did a bit of research into how smart, studious boys fare at school. 

Researchers are just beginning to examine the rates of bullying among gifted and high-achieving students specifically. Although there are few studies and they use very small sample sizes, it seems that bullying and victimization rates may not be any higher for gifted and high-achieving students than they are for other students. (3)

It is comforting to know that high intelligence might not necessarily cause a smart child to be bullied, but this study does not take into account the fears that boys may have of becoming a target, and the adaptations they undertake to avoid being picked on because they are smart. 

One adaptation is underachievement. Barbara Kerr, author of Smart Boys: Talent, Manhood, and the Search for Meaning stated in a keynote address delivered at the College of William and Mary that extreme underachievers in school are 90% male. And not all of these boys are underachieving because they are incapable. As Ms. Kerr also noted, “[a]lthough there are many causes for underachievement…there is ample evidence that one of them is male social coping with gender identity expectations. In contexts in which achievement is associated with nerdhood and weakness, underachievement becomes a way of asserting independence, strength, and masculinity.” (4)

Rebellious behaviour or “mucking around in class” is another option for boys who want to hide their smarts or appear like they don’t care about school. To look “cool” some boys will disrupt class and harass or ridicule boys who do well in school. (5) (This type of behaviour is reflected in pop culture in the many t-shirts marketed to young boys that promote an anti-school or bratty attitude and in the antics of characters like the protagonists in the Captain Underpants series of books.)

T-shirts with messages about boys being brats

Athletics are another refuge for smart boys. As Kerr said in her keynote speech, “Gifted boys learn very early that if they are smart, they had better be smart and athletic; athletic ability makes intelligence acceptable.” And a study cited in The Independent noted that high-achieving boys can maintain popularity if they are good at sports. (6) As for brainy boys who aren’t athletic, it appears they have the deck stacked against them.

So this is what the boy code hath wrought: boys who are afraid to show they are smart lest they be considered “geeky,” or worse, “girly,” for following the rules and doing well in school. 

Michele Landsberg wrote in the book Canadian Perspectives on Men & Masculinities that studious and intelligent boys are at risk of being cast out “to the outer realms of frozen darkness” as they enter higher grades at school. (7) Her statement may sound extreme, but the research I read seems to concur. Boys who don’t want to be ostracized develop coping mechanisms like those described above. According to Kerr, these adaptations can begin as early as the third grade and continue into high school, allowing boys to maintain their “gender identity at the expense of [their] future goals,” with some even allowing themselves to fail at school to prove their masculinity. The effects can also be felt at the postsecondary level. Kerr notes that many gifted men with a passion for arts, humanities, or literature abandon those interests in university, choosing instead to major in the more “lucrative—or perhaps manly”—fields of engineering, medicine, law, and business.

This situation shows the incredible damage caused by the macho imperative that surrounds boys from birth onward, and it needs to change. 

Instead of being inculcated into some antiquated boy code, boys need to be taught to value themselves for who they are. They need to take pride in their intelligence and scholastic achievements without feeling that their manhood is compromised by every A+ they earn. It’s a tough message to get across in a North American society where “a spirit of anti-intellectualism” is “rampant,” but it’s one that must be communicated to boys. (8)

We can start with the language we use in reference to boys. Instead of the vocabulary of the boy code, we need to include in our description of boys the positive attributes typically associated with females—things like creativity, sensitivity, affection, and compassion. To start this rethink of how we view boys, I created a word cloud for my Facebook timeline that has been shared widely: 

Word cloud of positive attributes of boys

Presenting boys with a diverse range of role models can also help alter their view of what they can be. Beyond sports stars, we should introduce boys to men who have excelled by using their minds and following their creative impulses, like the few I included in this brief video. [NOTE: I removed the video some time ago but it included men like Shakespeare, DaVinci, Beethoven, and Einstein.]

Small steps, yes, but important ones that will help free boys from the iron grip of the boy code.


1.Pollack, William. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. New York: Random House, 1998.

2. Jordan, Ellen. (1995) “Fighting Boys and Fantasy Play: the construction of masculinity in the early years of school.” Gender and Education 7, no. 1, (1995): 69 – 86, cited in The Achilles Effect (Bloomington, lN: iUniverse, 2011).

3. Parker, Megan R., “A Comparison of Bullying and Victimization Rates among Gifted and High-Achieving Students. ” PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2010.

4. Kerr, Barbara. Gender and Genius. Keynote Address to the National Curriculum Networking Conference, College of William and Mary, March 7, 2000.

5. Martino, Wayne. “Mucking Around in Class, Giving Crap, and Acting Cool: Adolescent Boys Enacting Masculinities at School.” Canadian Journal of Education. 25, no. 2 (2000):102-112.

6. Wilce, Hilary. “Bullied boys: Why bright lads are being picked on” The Independent,May 14, 2009.

7. Landsberg, Michele. “Cultivating the Human in the Boy.” Canadian Perspectives on Men &Masculinities. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada, 2012.) 2-11.

8. Robinson, Nancy M. “The Social World of Gifted Children and Youth,” in Handbook of Giftedness in Children. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 2008.

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