'Boys Have Deep Emotional Lives'

How parents, teachers, and schools can better understand young men: a conversation with Rosalind Wiseman about her new book, Masterminds and Wingmen.

Jim Young / Reuters

Before Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes was published, her agent asked if she would talk to a woman named Tina Fey. Wiseman, a new mother, "had no idea who she was," but after a short conversation agreed to sell Fey the film rights to her book, which dissected the complex social world of teenage girls. Two years later, Mean Girls hit theaters, an entertaining and spot-on illustration of the capacity of high school girls to inflict emotional pain on each other. With the success of the film, Wiseman became known as an expert on children, giving lectures to parents and educators on bullying, parenting, and ethical leadership around the world.

Her latest book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World tackles Boy World. With two sons of her own, Wiseman began to notice ways that adults would ignore or reinforce stereotypes about teenage boys' social world. Her new book was written with the help of more than 200 teenage boys who vetted her information and contributed their own experiences. (The Guide: Managing Douchebags, Recruiting Wingmen, and Attracting Who You Want is her companion manual, written specifically for the boys). I spoke with Wiseman about the best way for parents and teachers to communicate with boys, what the biggest myths are about popular boys, and why all boys are so often misunderstood.

After the popularity of Mean Girls, a lot of attention has gone toward the dynamics of Girl World. Why is Boy World less understood?

We have a very hard time seeing the signs of how and when boys want to talk to us. We also have a hard time—even though we think we don't—acknowledging that boys have deep emotional lives. We believe that because we can't see it, it's not there.

How do parents and teachers perpetuate the negative aspects of Boy World?

In so many different ways, we box boys in. We're not aware of it. Boys say it's good to have a female friend—if something bad happens with a girl, or if you break up with your girlfriend, it's much easier to talk to a girl about it than even your closest male friends. I just talked to a high school boy about how important it is to have girls that are friends. He broke up with his girlfriend, was overwhelmed, and realized it was a terrible mistake. His heart was broken and he didn't know what to do. He was a football player and wanted to talk to his closest friends, but he said that they just wanted to talk about hooking up. They didn't talk about their relationship problems. So he made evening plans to go to dinner with a very close female friend. As he walked out the door, his mother barraged him with questions about it. She assumed he wanted to hook up with this other girl. She thought he didn't care about his girlfriend, that he wants a hookup.

So his mom reinforced the stereotype about guys just going after sex.

Right. Even his own mother doesn't realize that her son needs a strong relationship with a girl—and that he's going out with this girl to bare his soul, to get relationship advice. We are allowing these stereotypes to shape the way we look at boys and their relationships with other people.

Fathers can also contribute to a macho culture.

The thing that really disturbs me is that there are so many wonderful dads, who want the best for their sons, who aren't having conversations with their sons about healthy relationships or acknowledging that they will fall in love. Falling in love in high school is a huge adrenaline rush—it's got intense highs and lows. Your heart can break, you can be betrayed. It's horrible, and you don't know what to do, or you wonder if you'll ever have a girlfriend. These are things that all boys struggle with, but even really good dads don't have conversations that acknowledge that experience.

And then there are a lot of other fathers whose relationship advice is limited to this type of scenario (told to me by the boys themselves):  A very attractive 18-year-old woman walks by and the dad nudges his son and says, "Go get that."

Great young men want to have rich emotional lives, but everywhere they turn, people are forcing them to live the stereotype of being a sexist, not-caring, emotionally disengaged, superficial guy. It's amazing because we turn around and get angry with them when they go over the line, without acknowledging what we do as adults that stifles and silences and shuts boys up from being emotionally engaged people.

What about schools? What role do they play in all this?

It's such an enormous question. But enough to say that much of how our educational system is structured—from the way boys are taught academics, to the lack of training we give teachers to be ethical competent authority figures who not only know their subject matter but are engaging educators, to the way the minority of boys who do abuse power so often regularly get away or are disciplined in a way that only shows how powerless the adults are to truly hold them accountable, all too often schools are the place boys learn that the overall culture they will grow up in restricts their creativity and makes it as difficult as possible to come into their masculinity in healthy ways.

What are the rules that govern Boy World and how are they different from Girl World?

The similarity is that verbal power is held high in both groups. If you can put someone down really fast or defend yourself verbally, that's a commodity, a real value. What boys do is they're much ruder about it. They do it more directly.

You talk about how boys are often at a loss when they're faced with highly verbal girls.

They pretend they don't mind it. They learn from an early age that whatever is going on around them isn't a problem. After years of convincing themselves that everything's fine, it's really difficult for them to recognize when things are not fine, when things are over the line. It goes right from young boys unable to say, "What's happening is not fine" to boys at a party seeing a girl who's drunk with four guys around her, and the boys conditioned to not acknowledge the potential danger that's in front of them. They don't see what they need to do to stop it until it's too late. If we're constantly dismissing or ridiculing their right to have emotional lives, why would they want to do it? At a certain point they shut down.

I interviewed Donna Freitas for The Atlantic earlier this year, and she says that in campus hookup culture "our most at-risk population seems to be young men"—specifically because they aren't encouraged to communicate their feelings about relationships.

I completely agree.

But while it's important to have conversations with boys about their relationships, you think it's a bit misguided for adults to sit boys down to talk about their feelings. So what's the best way to get them to open up?

This is where people jump down my back, saying, "Oh, you want boys to sit in a circle and talk about their feelings?" Anybody who works with boys knows that's a stupid way to spend your time. Crickets chirp, it's horrible. Instead, it's about role modeling healthy relationships with whoever you're in intimate relationships with. We are so hypocritical in the way we live versus what we say to boys. We lack credibility. The most important thing is to have arguments well. To treat people with dignity when you're angry with them. And not trying to control people when you're angry. Boys are extremely sensitive to that. They know which people in their lives use power and dominance to control people when they're angry. The best that you can hope for is that the boy experiences that and thinks, "I'm not going to be like that." It's like the anti-mentor.

You write about a hypothetical scenario where a mother is chauffeuring a group of boys who begin to tease each other. One of them refers to another guy as "retarded." What's your advice for parents in this situation?

Boys tease and use put-downs as an important part of their social glue. It's not always negative—if you take it away, they have very few ways to interact with each other. So it's about differentiating. It's totally fine for boys to tease, to give each other crap, but it's not okay for them to use particular words to get someone to shut up. "Gay," "faggot," and "pussy" are the shorthand ways to do this. It's the way to marginalize someone. Even with advances in gay rights, it's still the way they do it.

So this just happened: I was driving a group of 10-year-old boys who started using these words. I had to practice what I preach—I turned and said, "You are not going to use those words to put people down." They got crazy uncomfortable, my son didn't like it. I asked, "Are we good?" It took 15 seconds and we went back to listening to the radio.

Boys often hear these jokes and know they're wrong but don't know how to stand up to their friends.

It's not a fight that they can fight. It's too difficult for them. The power imbalance is so strong, so intense in that moment. The boy eventually needs to learn how to do that, but most adults can't even do it. How many times have adults been to a party where someone says some racist or sexist joke and no one says anything? So to expect a 10-year-old to do it is a little much.

You write from the perspective of a mother and your book includes advice specific to mothers and fathers. What advice do you have for single-parent households?

There are a lot of different types of parents today. It's a complex issue. I've seen parents who are married but the mother or father is so undermined by the spouse that it's so much worse. To have a single parent who lays down the rules and expectations is way better than to have a parent who is undermined by the other parent. I'm not saying that being a single parent is easy. But we don't credit how dysfunctional married relationships sometimes are.

What are the most critical challenges parents and teachers face now as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago?

It's easy to be overwhelmed with the technology that boys are interacting with all the time. I totally understand that. But I think the conversations we should be having with boys are the same: Conflict is inevitable, you're going to need to speak your truth when it's really uncomfortable, you're going to see somebody abuse power. Reacting to someone who grabs your tricycle when you're five is different from when you're at a party and have to speak out against your friend who's about to rape a drunk girl—but those are the moments. Those are the moments when who you are as a man counts.

Can you debunk any myths about popular boys?

We have stereotypes that the highest social status boys are having the most sex. And that they're having a particular kind of hookup—that they don't have heartbreak and only have random hookups, that they use girls. And that's not the case. Nor is it the case that lower social-status boys are sitting there hoping a girl hooks up with them. Adults make assumptions that, for example, the theater people are geeky, and they're not getting it on. In my experience, that's 100 percent not the case. Those people are very active, shall we say.

I brought this up with a male friend in his 30s, who completely disagreed. He still says the popular guys got all the girls.

No, they don't. Ask him if the guy in high school who played his acoustic guitar got any hookups. Really, the theater and band people are spending all their time together. It's a tight-knit group. Some of them will be good friends and some of them will hook up. The athletes, on the other hand, are spending much less time together. When the football team goes to an away game four hours away on the bus, that's a single-sex activity. When the band goes, it's co-ed.

As a mother of two boys, what have been your biggest surprises?

There's something every day. Here's one from this morning. My boys love to play hard-to-get with me. When I say "Come here and kiss me before you go to school!" my 10-year-old will run away to his bike, as fast as he can, laughing the whole time. For me, in that moment, I wonder: Why can't I just have a kid who wants to kiss me goodbye? But I have to realize that from the boys' perspective, that was the bonding. The bonding wasn't the kiss; it was "I'm going to run away from Mommy."

So we need to be more attuned to the ways they express themselves?


This conversation was edited for length and clarity.