Between sexual harassment and abuse, pay disparities favoring men and the glass ceiling, it can be hard to see men as disadvantaged. But there actually is an area where males have it worse — boys’ playful behaviors in school are judged more harshly than girls’, and this can have a negative effect on boys’ feelings about themselves.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed a group of kids from kindergarten through third grade. They had teachers, classmates and the kids rate themselves on a number of personal and social variables, including playfulness, social behavior and status, disruptive behavior and “class clown” status.
Some interesting and disturbing patterns emerged. Teachers viewed playful boys as fundamentally different from less playful boys, but they didn’t see girls this way. Boys who were playful — who fooled around in class — were seen as having poorer social skills, and as being rebellious and intrusive. They were also labeled “class clown” more often than girls who were playful, and reprimanded either verbally or non-verbally more often by their teachers.
“Teachers view class clowns as problematic and strive to stifle or extinguish their playfulness.”
“Children regularly observe playful boys, or ‘class clowns’, being treated negatively by their teachers, and over time come to change their view of them as desirable playmates in 1st and 2nd grades to being seen as boys who should be avoided or spurned in 3rd grade,” author Lynn Barnett said, in a statement. “Teachers view class clowns as problematic and strive to stifle or extinguish their playfulness,” she added.
Far from being just a “school thing,” Barrett sees the differences in boys’ experiences in schools today as a problem that is only getting worse and can create significant mental health issues for a boy in the long-run.
Much of the problem has to do with changes in how the school day is structured and how schools' priorities have shifted in recent years. Kids are spending more time in class preparing for tests and less time getting exercise outside or in gym class, both of which can help them pay attention. “The way that our society views and treats children and childhood has undergone massive changes,” Barnett explains.
“The decreases in individual expression and creativity, and social and emotional skills, and the increases in bullying, childhood obesity, and mental health issues such as stress, depression, anxiety are all…signals that we need to restore and extend children's free play time,” says Barnett.
Teachers viewed playful boys as fundamentally different from less playful boys, but they didn’t see girls this way.
It's well-established that kids need plenty of time outside, enjoying unstructured play, away from adults’ ideas about what they should be doing. This may be especially true for boys.
“Over many years of studying children at play, I have witnessed an alarming increase in play being structured and directed by adults — and what was once free play out-of-school time being [given over to] extracurricular activities and lessons, tutoring, homework, and the like,” says Barnett.
The study is published in Frontiers in Psychology.