Rosalind Wiseman knows boys. Not just because she is the mother of two boys, but because she has immersed herself in boy world. Two hundred boys, representing a variety of life experiences and perspectives, have shared their truest feelings and experiences with Wiseman and worked closely with her in the creation of Masterminds and Wingmen, a book that every parent should read.
Yes, every parent -- even those who are not raising sons -- can benefit from Masterminds and Wingmen. I am the mother of three girls, and I couldn’t put down Wiseman’s book. In our increasingly gendered world, the more that we can foster understanding between boys and girls about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl, the healthier all of our children will be as they form relationships.
Wiseman was in Chicago last week to meet with parents, educators, and community leaders to discuss her new book. How hungry is the public for more information about what teenage boys are thinking and experiencing? Hungry enough that nine hundred people showed up on a Friday night to hear Wiseman speak.
It was my privilege and pleasure to meet earlier in the day on Friday with Rosalind Wiseman and her Director of Communication and Marketing, Charlie Kuhn, to learn more about their work. Kuhn is a 25-years-old man who Wiseman brought on board with the specific intention of having him relate to the boys. Kuhn is close enough in age to remember what it was like to be a teenage boy, yet old enough to have some perspective and wisdom that can only come with time. Together, Wiseman and Kuhn have immersed themselves in the worlds of their 200 boys. “Sometimes, when one of them would make a statement that didn’t seem real enough to me, I would be there to push back a little, ask him to go deeper, get at what he was really trying to say,” Kuhn explained.
Coming off the writing of Masterminds and Wingmen, Wiseman wants parents to know two big points. “First, when we say that boys are simple and easy, that they have a fight and then it’s over, we are doing a real disservice to boys and the more complex lives they lead. By saying that boys are simple, well-meaning parents often stop boys from expressing themselves. We contribute to their lack of communicating,” she explained.
“Second, I want dads to remember what it’s like to be 7th grade boys and not buy into the stereotype that boys are simple. Dads need to remember their own feelings and experiences with their friends, with coaches and girls, with being sex-crazed. Look at your son and say to yourself, ‘there are some things different about this generation, but they still have the same heartaches and feelings.’”
Wiseman has a larger agenda than wanting to write a successful book. “I want to change the way people look and think about things that are meaningful to them,” she told me. “Get them to question things and look at consequences. I’m writing for boys. That’s one of the reasons we did the Guide. It's just for the boys, because boys aren’t going to want to read the same book their moms and dads are reading, but the whole point of this is to help them.”
Wiseman gave Kuhn ownership of The Guide. He knew that the Guide should not be a pdf or a for-sale item. It had to be a free e-book if the boys were really going to read it, and Wiseman agreed. Kuhn told me, “The 200 guys we are speaking on behalf of are proud of their work. They want to help other guys going through the same things. Cloaking it under the idea that guys don’t talk isn’t true.”
I asked Wiseman how her research would influence her parenting, given that she and her husband are raising a 10-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy. She replied, “I’m specifically mindful of the things that boys tell me are irritating.” She also made it very clear that her insights and knowledge do not in any way make her kids less likely to get into trouble. Down to earth and matter-of-fact, Wisemen said, “My husband and I work really hard to raise good men, but I do not think I’m immune in any way from my boys doing something that would shock me. When I imagine my son in a locker room, I know he knows what I think, and the best I can say is, I hope he wouldn’t do something shocking. I hope.”
As much as Wiseman feels responsibility towards her own sons, what she commented on was how strongly she felt for all the boys she met. “It struck me how lonely so many of these boys are, how often we as adults did not do right by these kids.”
What is a parent to do when a child is struggling? “You slow down,” Wiseman advised. “Just slow down in your responses and in your actions. If your boy doesn’t want to talk, make strategic use of texting. But if you cannot reach your kid, do not text his friends and try to find out what is going on. Do not try to get context out of his friends, because he won’t like that.”
Kuhn added, “For older boys, it isn’t bad for them to have other people to help them, if they don’t want to talk to you. Ask them who the best person is they can talk to about this. Both my brother and I had a family up the street and we could talk to their dad, and it was a great connection for us.”
If your child has a close relationship with another adult, it is good and healthy to recognize it and be supportive of it. Give your kids permission to have those attachments, and then make sure that you express to the mentors or coaches that you are glad that your child can trust them. If you are worried about your child being at risk, Wiseman said, “I would tell the coach or whoever it is how much I appreciate their relationship with my kid and to just let me know if there is anything running off the rails.”
Our conversation turned to the cyber lives of boys. “Nowadays, I think there is no difference between your real life and your online life,” Wiseman said. Kuhn agreed, telling me about his younger brother who is a junior in high school. “The digital world and the physical world are the same to him.”
Wiseman and the boys who contributed to the book did a lot of arguing over phones and monitoring. She said, “If they live in a big city and they will be taking urban transportation in elementary school, I’ll never argue with a parent about giving a kid a phone. But other than that, you can get a phone in middle school. Your parent must know the password to your phone and will have the stated right to check. This is called incremental freedom.” If a child can prove he is worthy to have increased privacy, then he deserves that, but it must be earned.
We talked about the fact that kids will slip up online and make mistakes. My feeling is that permanently taking away the technology as a punishment doesn’t work, because the kids will still find a way to get online, and they will just hide it even more. Instead, we should teach them how to be ethical digital citizens. Wiseman feels the same way. “Parents need to NOT freak out. Taking away Instagram or any platform is silly because six months from now, it will be something else. No matter what the actual platform or game, there are standards that you must hold your kids to. When they are in middle school, check in, charge their phone in your own room, and incrementally give them freedom,” she recommends.
In my interviews around bullying, I have seen how difficult it is for parents, moms in particular, to see evidence of the way their children can behave around their peers. I have spoken with moms who said, “My son is a good kid, and he wouldn’t do something like that.” And then when it comes to light that their sons have participated in unacceptable activities, the mothers feel devastated. I remember telling one mom, “Just because he did this doesn’t mean he’s not still a good kid. He made a mistake. This particular behavior was bad, but don’t think of him as a bad person. Just show him how to make better choices the next time he is in this situation.” I asked Wiseman what advice she had for mothers whose sons have engaged in upsetting activities.
“Sometimes we learn things that are painful, and women need to be ethical authority figures with their sons,” Wiseman explained. “When it comes to how your son treats other people, get him to think, if my mother knew I was doing this, how would I act? Tell your son, ‘You may not degrade other people. A desperate girl who needs attention is not someone you can dehumanize,’ and then explain what dehumanizing looks like to you.”
I could have talked with Wiseman and Kuhn all day; it was such a delight to hear about their research and their work. What they are doing is important beyond measure. Thank you for your time and your contributions to helping parents raise better kids!
This review was written by Carrie Goldman, the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
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