Boys Will Be Boys

By Andrew Burden Posted on August 31 2010

From the sandbox to the construction site, being male is often associated with a natural spirit of trouble-making. You don’t have to be on John Eldridge’s mailing list to recognize that there is an untamed energy that is uniquely masculine. Middle school boys at church camp are no exception. After 19 years of volunteering, I’ve got plenty of stories to tell. But I’ve come to the point where I’ve said “enough is enough” when it comes to pranks and roughhousing.

Early on, I tended to participate in or even instigate much of the pranking. One summer, I had a camper who kept leaving his dirty boxers all over the place. When he was out during free time, I led the charge to hide and/or display all of the errant unmentionables in strategic out-of-reach locations throughout the cabin. He actually thought it was pretty funny.

I organized “smackdown” wrestling for years, but those days are officially behind me. The downstairs common room in our cabins has a support post in the middle and a bank of metal lockers, so all 16 boys would strip their mattresses and feed them down the spiral staircase to provide plenty of padding. They would pair up with an opponent of similar size/weight and have 60 seconds to wail on each other (close to the mat - no aerial moves), accompanied by blaring heavy metal. Did I get the message when I had the kid puke following his match? Or when the boy almost dislocated his elbow? Nope.

Two incidents finally convinced me that pillow fights are about as rough as I will allow from now on. A couple years ago, the last year I overtly allowed any kind of pranking (including the classic removal of the bunk’s support board and remaking the bed with only the mattress so the victim falls through), the boys couldn’t get enough of “pantsing” each other. At least they confined it to the cabin! When both cabin leaders were gone near the end of afternoon free time, one boy stood up for a less assertive kid who was frustrated over the repeated involuntary exposure. Pushing led to (unsupervised) wrestling and the “bully,” older but smaller than the “champion,” ended up pressed against the wall and unable to breathe. The last thing you want to find when you return to the cabin is a camper who has recently passed out.

I learned last summer to never even playfully or implicitly give permission to pound on each other, especially to an older boy frustrated with the antics of a younger one. In the heat of the moment, he forgot the size and strength differential and injured pride as much as body.

Now and forevermore, my mantra for pranks and excessive roughhousing is “don’t promote, don’t participate, don’t allow.” It has to be shut down right away. And if something does happen, the youth pastor needs to know sooner rather than later. He’ll get the intense phone call about it, not me.


Picture of Scott Major

From Scott Major on August 31, 2010

I agree, to a certain extent.  I’ve had a few close calls, too.  I have learned that, being the head leader in a cabin a camp, I need to make sure all of my leaders are on the same page when it comes to roughhousing, pranks, etc.  Otherwise, one leader (usually me) becomes the bad guy and has to put the kibosh on all of the antics while the other leader(s) become the “fun” leaders.

However, I do think there is a certain level of roughhousing that is acceptable.  Kids (especially middle school boys) show their affection by playful hitting and wrestling because it’s not cool to tell another guy that you like them or give them a hug or something.  As long as you set the ground rules and stop it quickly if it gets carried away.

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From andrew burden on August 31, 2010

I saw someone say this on the Facebook discussion of the article, and I would have said it myself if they hadn’t beat me to it. Know your students, and know the parents. Some groups might be able to handle a higher level of physicality without carrying things too far. Personally, I think it’s better to err on the side of caution if you don’t know the group well enough yet to be sure.

And we shouldn’t assume that roughhousing and wrestling around are the only ways boys can connect. The key is simply to be DOING something together, not necessarily physical or athletic in nature, rather than just sitting and talking (which tends to be intimidating to a lot of boys). Case in point: This year at camp, instead of wrestling or pillow fighting (both of which I was specifically asked to avoid, weeks ahead of my article publishing), I had the boys do a lip sync contest. When the first “act” was a quartet air-crooning Justin Bieber’s “Baby” (which brought down the house), all of the other boys ended up participating wholeheartedly. They talk about that night with as much enthusiasm as any group of smackdown wrestlers ever did.

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From Pastor D on September 24, 2010

I can agree with this, but I believe we as youth pastors and volunteers need to learn where to draw the line. My rule of thumb is, if it involves possibly hurting someone else’s feelings, or possibly hurting someone physically, then it’s an automatic no. You would be surprised as to the number of amazing pranks you can pull that do not involve either of those. Like this last year at camp, instead of pulling pranks on other campers, our youth group pranked the camp staff. . . it was great.

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From T-Mom on October 27, 2010

I just saw this article and want to add one thing. As a Mom, I secretly felt pretty good when my son got to 6-foot-2. I knew he could hold his own at high school and church camp (although he’s a pacifist kind of guy). What I didn’t count on was a new type of game that’s sweeping the country, known in our area as the “punching game.” It happens between friends and works like this: Boys punch each other as hard as they can, sometimes without warning, in the chest cavity to see if the recipient “can take it.”  In our son’s case, three days after taking blows from seven friends (we didn’t know about the game at the time), he passed out at home. After rushing him to the hospital, we learned that he had developed an arrhythmia and had a severely bruised heart cavity wall. The doctors at the hospital were aghast at the behavior, because a blow at the “right” time during the heart-pumping cycle can stop it altogether. There have seen been many reports in the news about the game, including a report about a boy in Illinois, age 13, who recently died from it.

We sent our son to school with a protective vest for awhile, because so many boys—even after explicit warnings from the principal—still were participating in the game. It’s been a year, and while our son is better, he still has irregular heartbeats from time to time. I thought the article here and follow-up comments made this point well: It’s important to walk the line between “boys-will-be-boys” and behavior that puts boys at risk. The punching game definitely falls in the latter category, and I wanted to send out a warning ...

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From pbj on November 08, 2010

I’m a fan of no pranks and no rough housing along those lines

one thing to have physical games/paintball (total fan), another to be screwing around

pranks always end too late because nobody wants to be shown up

never been a fan of pain games or wrestling free for alls…we need to be teaching our young men how to be actual men not just giant boys

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From Paul Smith on January 12, 2011

I stopped wrestling with kids when I almost dislocated a star athlete’s shoulder, who also happened to be the son of a very very successful businessman. That could have been a very interesting lawsuit.

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From Pastor Kyle on February 10, 2011

I agree an alternative is great, but seriously sports and recreations like ping pong, or racquetball or volleyball, something wih physical competition. BOYS NEED PHYSICAL COMPETITION. Even the ones that aren’t good. Not every kind of physical activity is like football or wrestling, that will only appeal to a few. But kickball, everyone loves. Sitting down and watching another kids mouth lip sync Justin Beiber song. I’m truely sorry if I offend you but that is the GAYEST thing I have ever heard of. Get them active. That is the onyl way to expend energy.

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From Andrew on February 22, 2011

I thought the article was a good reminder for all of us.

By the way Pastor Kyle, I agree that i am not sure that i would try the justin bieber lipsync, but you need to watch how you say it.  I can only hope you never talk like that around any youth.

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