'Mean Girls' Inspiration Reveals The Secret To Raising Boys

A new book explores the world of teenage boys and debunks the myth that parents raising boys have it easier. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rosalind Wiseman about her new book Masterminds and Wingmen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. If you are a person who tries to keep up with the latest parenting books, if you are the parent of a girl, if you are a fan of Tina Fey, then you are probably aware of the name Rosalind Wiseman. She's the author of the New York Times best-seller "Queen Bees and Wannabes." Tina Fey based a movie on it. But even more importantly, it changed many people's attitudes about teen girls and their relationships. It showed them to be much more intense and complicated than many people understood them to be.

Now a little over a decade after "Queen Bees" was first published, Rosalind Wiseman is back with a new book that also tries to change misconceptions about adolescent boys based on research and her interviews with hundreds of boys who shared some of their most private thoughts with her. Her latest book is called "Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Your Son Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World." And Roz Wiseman is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROSALIND WISEMAN: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what do you think is the biggest misconception people have about boys?

WISEMAN: I think it's a thing we say all the time - boys are easy. Compared to girls, you know, as they grow up, boys are easy. They just fight and it's over and, you know, they're simple. Girls are complicated. Girls are the ones with the complex friendships. And nothing could be farther from the truth.

MARTIN: Now, I think one of the secrets that you reveal in this book is that you are the mother of two boys.

WISEMAN: (Laughter)

MARTIN: And a lot - you know, people say well, you're the girls lady, and yet you're the mother of two boys. Is there a conception that you had about your own kids that changed with this work?

WISEMAN: Well, what really changed for me, as a mother of two boys, is how I communicate to them when I am angry or frustrated, or trying to reach them to comfort them. So specifically, one of the things that boys said to me - and it was almost this, I can only describe it as a churchlike moment where, you know, people get up and start saying hallelujah - where the boys in the very beginning that I was working with said, you know the reason why I don't talk to my mom? Because when I get into the car at the end of the day or she sees me for the first time after school, she starts asking me all of these questions. How was your day? How's this? How's that? What happened with this? And I just am so exhausted, and I just want a few minutes to just relax, that I end up just saying, like, I'm fine, and then putting my headphones on. So can we just have a few minutes of peace?

And I realized - as an expert, right? Expert that I supposedly am - that many people like me -myself included - have been saying to parents, oh, when you get your kid in the car, you should have these really deep, meaningful conversations. What I didn't realize was the boys really felt like they were getting interrogated the moment they got into the car. So we need to give them some space to decompress. That's the first thing - one of the things I learned.

MARTIN: And obviously, there's a lot more on why that might be, and that you go through in the book. In this book, just like people remember "Queen Bees," you talked about certain roles that you have observed that kids tend to play in groups - that girls tend to play in groups; hence, "Queen Bees and Wannabes." In this group, you identify - in this book, you identify a number of roles: mastermind, associate, bouncer, entertainer, fly, conscience, punching bag, champion. Now, we don't have time here to go through all of these various roles. And I do want to point out for people who don't like these kinds of labels, that you say that this isn't something that you should then pin on a kid, and stick it to him for life, that this is not...

WISEMAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...So you're very clear on that. But talk to me a little bit about why these roles exist, and why you think people fall into them.

WISEMAN: Well, I think that being a human being, we want to belong to a group, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's really the essence of being human - is that we want to belong. It makes us feel good. It makes us feel connected. And our relationships and our friendships are fundamental to who we are, and how we process the world and how we filter our experiences. And it's no different from girls - or for boys. So when boys are in groups, for various reasons that I go into, in "Masterminds," there are certain kids who have more social power - are more verbally able; are able, when they speak, that everybody listens - or the opposite; that when a kid speaks, that you laugh at him.

Or a very particular way that I think that most educators will know of middle-school boys, is that when - you know - you have a seventh-grade group of boys, like a - you know, group of six or seven boys sitting at a table, whoever gets up to signal that they are done eating - gets up their tray and moves it over - that is the boy that has the most social power. And that actually translates into the way in which they behave with each other.

And in moments of conflict, what happens is that based on your position in the group, you feel more or less comfortable speaking truth to power. And that is extraordinarily important no matter what age you are, but it is just as relevant and it impacts boys - as girls - that when they are older children, and they're - you know - or they're playing video games, and who gets to decide which video game you're playing; to when you're a teenager at a party, and you see something going wrong - very wrong, and it's your friend who is perpetrating it, that you are actually preconditioned to not say anything because you have, for years, not been saying things when you don't like what he's doing; or you believe that if you try and speak your truth, that you will be ridiculed or dismissed.

MARTIN: Now, I'm glad you brought that up, though, because one of the things I wanted to talk about before we take a short break - and you are going to stay with us for - and we're going to add some folks from our normal - our regular parenting roundtable - is that these days, there always seems to be a story in the paper, in the news, about a group of teenage boys, or college boys, doing something really stupid or really terrible.

WISEMAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And most recently, the situation that comes to mind is, there's a case right now going on at the Naval Academy of three former - you know, Navy football players who were accused of having sex with another cadet while she was unconscious, at an off-campus party. Then there's the Steubenville rape case. You write about boys in groups, and their dynamics. Can you shed some light on why these kinds of extreme things seem to happen in groups? And then so often, you hear after the fact, well, that's a nice kid...

WISEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: ...Oh, that's a nice kid; or, that guy comes from a great family...

WISEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: ...I can't believe this happened.

WISEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: Can you shed some light on that?

WISEMAN: Yes, I can. This is something that we talked a lot about, with the boys. And I had a lot of boys of all different places in the social hierarchy who talked to me about this, including high-social-status kids. Here's what I think: I think that we've got that group dynamic of paralysis when something happens - an abuse of power - that really leads to not being able to speak. But I also think that parents of girls talk to their daughters about sexual assault, and how to prevent sexual assault when they become teenagers. What boys get from parents - even well-meaning boys - are things like, think with your other head; I don't want any grandbabies.

They are not talking to their sons about the complexities of sexuality, of sexual interaction, of how confusing things can be about rape and consent. We are not talking to our boys about this because rape is still something that we don't like to talk about. It's still uncomfortable. It's still under - you know, something that we're very silent about.

And then the other part is, if we're talking to the boys, we're talking to them in soundbites - like, do the right thing; stand up for what's right; if this was your sister, what would you do? - which does not, in any way, reflect the complexity of what's going on. And then the other part - which is really, really tricky - is that so much of what is happening that leads up to the sexual assault appears completely normal - meaning common - to the boys. Partying is normal. Drinking is normal. Taking pictures of people embarrassing or humiliating themselves is normal. So that there is this gradual lead-up to something that is absolutely horrendous.

And the boys are literally - the bystanders are predisposed to not listen to the alarm bells that are going off. And even if they were, they are - really believe that nothing that they can say will make a difference. Does that get them off the hook from being - that they need to take responsibility? Of course not. But we have to be able to talk to them in ways that are actually reflective of their experiences.

MARTIN: And we need to take a short break, but you are going to stay with us; we're happy about that. And we are going to be joined by two of the regular parents who normally join us in our parenting roundtable. They are the parents of a number of boys between them, and so I think that that will be interesting. Roz Wiseman is the author of "Masterminds and Wingmen." That's her latest book that looks at the lives of preteen and teen boys. And she's with us from our bureau in New York. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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