The first part of a provocative chapter on the hidden world of teenage boys, from the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes. A must-read for parents of boys.
The following is an excerpt from Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, by bestselling author Rosalind Wiseman.
Boys are just so different from girls. They just don’t fight the way girls do. When it’s done it’s done. It’s just so much simpler with boys.
You have boys??!! Isn’t that funny that you have boys when you do all this stuff with girls? Let me tell you, you are so lucky to have two boys! Boys are so much harder than girls when they’re little, but just you wait. When they get older, boys become so easy compared to girls!
I’ve lost track of how many times people have said the above to me. But over the years that I’ve worked with boys, I’m convinced that what looks like their “easiness” is actually our own ignorance. If you’ve ever picked up a boy from school and asked him how his day was, you may know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me explain it to you this way.
When a fourteen-year-old girl screams at you for not “getting” a problem she just described to you in detail for the last fifteen minutes, at least you heard a name and a few nouns and adjectives that gave you an inkling of what she was so upset about before she ran upstairs and threw herself on her bed. Boys’ problems can slip under the radar precisely because there’s usually no early warning system. What you thought was easiness turns out to be your own cluelessness, which you only figure out when someone drops a “bad news” bomb on you that makes you doubt someone’s sanity—yours, your son’s, or that of the person who’s telling you. What then ensues can be tremendously frustrating. You sit across the kitchen table from your boy (who’s slumped in his chair or precariously balanced on its back legs), and his only response to your worried questions is, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” You finish the conversation exactly as you started, except now you’re even more frustrated.
After twenty years of teaching and working with teens, I realize that we often make the mistake of believing that if a boy doesn’t come to us with problems, then he doesn’t have them. We believe this for various reasons. Boys don’t demand our attention in the same ways that girls do. We don’t give them a language for talking about their worries and experiences like we do with girls. And we really don’t think enough about what our culture—and ourselves by extension—demands and expects of boys and how it frames their emotional lives, decision-making, self-esteem, and social competence. When we do notice boys, it’s usually because they’re somehow failing or they’re acting out in ways that appear thoughtless, reckless, disrespectful, threatening, or frightening.
As a result, by the time boys reach adolescence, most have adopted an appearance of calm detachment and seem to be disengaged from their most meaningful relationships, their future academic or professional success, and any desire to make the world a better place. This is the “slacker” attitude that people so often note in describing boys. Our reactions to this attitude are equally problematic because we usually dance between two extremes: getting angry with them because they’re unfocused and “lazy” or dismissing the problem as “typical boy behavior” (i.e., not anything that needs to be ad- dressed).
The reality is that most boys’ days are filled with many of the same social challenges that girls face, and what they learn from those experiences matters now and for their futures, as it does for girls. We just aren’t trained to see it because boys’ problems can look deceptively simple and we can’t interpret the signs when they’re calling out to us for help. Frankly, we find it really challenging to admit how much we contribute to boys’ alienation. But make no mistake—under that detached facade, boys are desperate for meaning in their lives and for relationships they can count on for support and love.
Do you remember the moment when you realized you were going to have a son? Stop reading and really think about that moment. Remember your feelings and thoughts and what people said to you. I’ll tell you what mine were. I remember being five months pregnant and walking through a park watching a group of ten-year-old boys scream and throw themselves on each other. As I watched them I distinctly recall thinking, There’s not a lot going on in those brains. I remember my in-laws liking me a lot more because I was giving them a grandson. I remember people telling me how loud my house would be and how I’d better start saving money for all the things he’d break. (By the way, that money is called my sons’ savings accounts, and I do withdraw their money when they break things.) But that was it.
Compare this to someone who is having a daughter. From the moment they find out they’re having a girl, most parents know that the culture we live in will present specific challenges to their daughter’s self-esteem. As a girl matures it’s assumed that her parents need to worry about, prepare for, and then talk to her about body image, mean girls, bullying, eating disorders, physical safety, negative portrayals of girls in the media, and sexual vulnerability. Parents of girls also get a lot of support. If you want to find a conference, book, or seminar on any of these issues, it’s not hard to find, regardless of where you live and what your income is.
Equally important, because both educators and parents of girls are aware of these Girl World issues, we can protest the unhealthy messages. We don’t just accept them. Maybe you’ve seen what mommy bloggers do when a clothing company has the audacity to sell a T-shirt marketed to girls that says I HATE ALGEBRA! Besides protest, we also include girls in our mission. We enlist them in the fight so that at very early ages many girls can cross their arms and lecture you about how even if they like purple, girls can like any other colors too. All of this is great for girls and a huge improvement from what girls experienced even a generation ago. While we still have a lot more to do (a whole lot more to do), girls have a general understanding that the complicated, mixed-message culture we live in not only gives them terrible messages about their sexuality and self-worth but also includes empowering messages that support them as they come into their full, authentic potential.
We don’t do any of this for boys. We don’t collectively challenge boy culture. We either buy into it ourselves or don’t notice it. We don’t see boys as complex, nuanced individuals. We don’t think a boy who loves shooting Nerf guns (at age seven), Airsoft (at age eleven), or paint guns (at age thirteen and over) also wants to read romantic adventure stories. Instead, people often say, “Boys don’t read.” We are part of the problem when we say this. We are contributing to boys’ alienation.
Here’s a concrete example. If you have a seventh-grade daughter, you probably know that girls are often self-conscious about their bodies at this age, especially if they have larger breasts or weigh more than other girls they hang out with. When your daughter is invited to a swim party, you probably understand why she’s anxious about what she’s going to wear without her having to tell you, “Mom, girls can be very mean to girls who develop early. I’m feeling very self-conscious about my breasts, so I really need some help and support, and I’m not sure if I want to go to this party.” If you’re her dad and don’t get it right away, her mom can tell you in two seconds, and then you’ll get it.
Now imagine that your son is a seventh-grader who has “moobs” (man boobs) and that he’s invited to the same swim party. Two weeks before the party, he casually asks you to get him a swim shirt, but he doesn’t say anything about needing it in time for this party. Understandably, you file away Get him swim shirt in the back of your mind and don’t get the swim shirt. When it’s time to leave for the party, you have to yell at him four times because he won’t stop playing video games. When you finally get him into the car, you assume he’s sullen because he’s going through video game withdrawal. You drive him to the party, lecturing him about screen time and getting even more annoyed because he’s not listening to you. Meanwhile, your son is fantasizing that the moob teaser broke his arm at practice today and is currently getting metal pins inserted in his bones without anesthesia so he’ll be missing the party.
Two hours later, you pick him up from the party determined to start fresh. You enthusiastically ask if he had a good time. He says, “It was fine.” You ignore his sullen attitude. You cheerily ask him who was there. He answers, “I don’t know. Some people from school.” In two minutes you’re back to feeling angry and rejected. But he’s not mad at you. Well, he is, because you didn’t get him the swim shirt. But he’s miserable because the moob teaser didn’t break his arm and miss the party. Instead, that kid took a picture of your son with his shirt off and showed it to all the other guys, who laughed and called him “Boob Boy.” But you won’t know any of this. Which means that when you get home and he goes right back to the TV and chooses the most violent game he has and starts destroying his enemies in the most gruesome way possible, you’ll go right back to yelling at him that he’s addicted to those horrible games and worry that the games are turning him into a violent freak.
He isn’t running to play that video game for no reason. He’s running to distract himself from the shame he feels that he was ridiculed for his body, from his deeply wired belief that he can’t tell you what happened, and it feels good to shoot something that he can pretend is his tormentor.
We assume boys are easy because they keep quiet, and in the process we sentence them to a lifetime of being misunderstood. If we don’t recognize and appreciate the challenges they’re facing, no matter how much we love them and want to help them, they won’t see us as a resource. Instead, they’ll see us as an essential part of the problem. You don’t need to take my word for it. Listen to them.
There is no way I’m telling my parents about my problems. There’s no point. My dad especially freaks out, starts yelling at me, and makes everything worse. —Ethan, 14
This girl in my class must be the most annoying girl on the planet. Last week she would not stop talking about who liked who in the class. After school, she wouldn’t stop teasing me. I finally snapped and poured water on her head. Of course I was the only one who got sent to the principal’s office. My parents want to kill me. This week this girl’s right back to doing the same thing because she knows she can get away with it. WHAT DO I DO???? —Evan, 13
When my mom gets mad at me, she tells me I’m being like my dad. She hates my dad. Can you imagine what that’s like? It’s like being cut with a knife. And this is the person who I’m supposed to tell my problems to. —Sean, 16
In addition to what the boys say, there’s significant research that clearly shows how boys are struggling:
- For every 100 girls age 6 to 14 with a learning disability, 160 boys have a learning disability (US Census Bureau, “Americans with Disabilities: 2002,” May 2006).
- For every 100 females age 15 to 19 who commit suicide, 549 males in the same age range kill themselves (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs /data/dvs/LCWK1_2002.pdf).
- For every 100 girls in correctional facilities, 879 boys are behind bars (http://www.census.gov/population/www/cen 2000/briefs/phc-t26/index.html).
Adding to these statistics, 70 percent of high school valedictorians are now female. My colleagues in college admissions tell me that the ratio of male applicants to female applicants has continued to weaken so much that now they believe that for every eight qualified female applicants there are only two male applicants. Eight to two. They won’t admit that publicly, but it’s something they discuss among themselves. The last time I spoke to a group of college admissions professionals (and there were representatives of Ivy League and other select colleges in the room), one of the attendees asked me, “Should we accept a male student who does well on his standardized tests but doesn’t get good grades and does the bare minimum with extracurricular activities? We can accept him because we need boys, but we have no indication that he’ll be a productive member of our community.” So while people are worried about racial affirmative action, the biggest affirmative action problem is right in front of us. If you’re still having a hard time believing me, check out this graph from Collegestats:
In that context, this comment from Will, a sophomore at George- town and one of my primary research and editorial assistants, makes perfect sense.
In my AP classes, I was always one of five guys. The same five guys in a classroom of girls. I had plenty of guy friends who could have taken those classes, but they didn’t want to do it. They’d rather be the best among the mediocre. Really, my friends would rather look stupid. They weren’t secure enough to compete with the girls.
We owe it to boys to do better. We owe it to the girls who are growing up with these boys to do better. Because even if you don’t have boys, you don’t want girls having to put up with insecure, intellectually stunted, emotionally disengaged, immature guys. Worse is when some boys’ insecurity combines with arrogance and privilege. Then we’re dealing with guys who believe that the right to amuse themselves by degrading girls is more important than behaving with common decency—or they don’t even realize how stupid they’ll look when they get caught. For example, when a fraternity at self-described “elite” Amherst College in Massachusetts (not a big university in the South where we stereotypically assume these things occur) designed a T-shirt for their pig roast party of a pig smoking a cigar and watching a naked woman roast on a spit with the words ROASTING FAT ONES SINCE 1847, the guys didn’t understand why that was such a problem. Here’s Dana Bloger, a female student at Amherst, explaining why the T-shirt is a problem:
The woman on the shirt is depicted as an animal—or rather, as inferior to an animal, since she has not only replaced the pig on the spit but is being roasted by it. She is objectified as a literal piece of meat, whose thoughts, feelings, and humanity are rendered nonexistent and her consent therefore irrelevant. The hypersexualization of her body links violence with sex, thus perpetuating the notion that violence is sexy and sexuality violent. While I am not suggesting that this image would ever directly cause the infliction of violence on any individual woman, dehumanization is always the first step toward justifying such violence.
The guys’ official response, after they tried to blow it off by saying they were drunk when they came up with the idea? “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.” (There were many male students who commented on Bloger’s blog in support of her article and who called out the other guys. But as they pointed out, Bloger was the one who came out publicly and attached her name to the problem—which meant she took the heat from the guys who wanted her to shut up.)
All I have to say is: eight to two. It’s not good for anyone.
For all of us, including the guys who made that T-shirt, the stakes are high. So here’s what I’m asking. Just as I challenged people in Queen Bees to examine girls’ social lives more closely and be honest about how they contribute to the pressures on girls, I’m asking us to do the same for boys. Despite the fact that some extraordinary people like Bill Pollock, James Garbarino, Leonard Sax, Michael Gurian, Paul Kivel, Michael Thompson, Jackson Katz, Don McPherson, Michael Kimmel, and many others have been doing some extraordinary work on boys’ issues for a long time, the reality is that the impact of Boy World and boys’ social dynamics on their emotional well-being has been left out of the national conversation. We don’t acknowledge that boys wage sophisticated power plays and can be relentlessly targeted for humiliation, or that so many feel insecure about their bodies. We don’t notice when some boys abuse power and then get allies to back them up while other boys seethe in silence. And we really struggle to see how our own behavior with boys reinforces these dynamics.
The big question is this: how did those frat boys—who probably wrote “I love you!” Mother’s Day cards when they were eight—get to be such jerks? Did their parents know that their sons were capable of such callousness? On the other side, I believe there were guys in that Amherst fraternity who didn’t want to go along with the T-shirt but didn’t say anything. Why did they stay silent?
WHY BATMAN NEVER SMILES
I’d bet any amount of money that you’ve never said to a boy, “If you have a big problem and admit you’re really upset and worried, I’ll be ashamed of you and you’ll grow up to be a poor excuse for a man.” But somehow most boys have this message to some degree wired into their brains by the time they reach older childhood. Where does this message come from? It’s not like someone has been beaming things into their brains all day since they were little kids about when it’s okay for a guy to ask for help.
Except that’s exactly what’s going on. Think back to when your son was five or six and what toys he was given and what he liked to play with. I’m not about to launch into an argument about trying to get boys to play with dolls instead of trucks, and this isn’t about what color clothes you put him in as a toddler. Just go with me here. Did he get or play with toys that looked like this?
Do you remember the first time he got a superhero costume? Who got it for him? Did he jump off couches? When you walked through the door, did he attack you? Do you remember how exciting it was for him to be the all-powerful superhero? When you’re a young boy and you’re flying around the room with a Batman cape your grandma gave you, it’s intoxicating. You’re the hero. You don’t have to listen to anyone. You have unlimited power—which, when you’re five, is particularly cool because the reality is that you have very little control over your life.
Now I want you to imagine what this Batman looks like when he’s incredibly happy and excited. Imagine him in love. Does Batman ever look like anything other than what he looks like above? No. Batman’s emotional range is always somewhere between serious, detached, sullen, and angry. No matter how physically hurt he is, Batman shakes it off. If he’s angry, he either clenches his jaw or exacts revenge with utter physical domination. If he really needs advice or he’s being stubborn, Alfred seems to always know what to say to make Batman feel better or set his head straight. Alfred teaches boys that the people who are closest to them should innately know when they’re upset, why they’re upset, and what to do to make them feel better. But if people don’t get it, boys give up, because otherwise they would have to admit having messy feelings of “weakness” that Batman never shows. When you’re dealing with a boy, it’s like you have one silver bullet to kill the bad thing that’s upsetting him.
Now imagine you’re an eleven-year-old boy, and even though Batman is still cool, you and your friends start hanging out with this guy:
And now you’re thirteen and you like this guy:
The first picture is from Halo, one of the more popular video games for guys of all ages. The second picture is from Assassin’s Creed, one of the more popular, interesting games that middle school and high school guys play.
When I show these pictures to the boys at the beginning of my presentations, they respond by roaring. There’s no other way to describe it. They roar. It doesn’t matter if they’re in middle or high school. They jump up and down. They throw their arms in the air. When I ask them if they remember their superhero outfits, they grin and for a moment you can see the five-year-old boy each one of them used to be. Then I ask variations of the same questions I’ve asked you. What would the Halo guy act like if his parents were going through a bad divorce? How would the guy in Assassin’s Creed show he was sad because he just got dumped? What would he do if his friends were spreading horrible rumors about a girl and he knew they weren’t true?
Boys should want to act heroically at certain points in their lives. Being independent and self-reliant, getting up after having been knocked down—these are absolutely critical skills. But because these characters never show sadness, fear, anxiety, or obvious enthusiasm and love, they constantly teach and reinforce that boys should limit their emotions, and they even tell boys which ones they’re allowed to have. They don’t show how a man should speak out in a morally complex situation when his loyalties are torn between friends and ethics.
But as much as the boys love them, these characters (and by extension, the media at large) aren’t entirely responsible for defining and suppressing boys’ emotional range. The adults around them nurture and reinforce those limitations as well. It comes down to this. Many of us talk a really good game, but we aren’t being honest with ourselves. I have watched countless parents say they don’t want their son to bury his feelings, then tell him to “get yourself under control.” I’ve seen parents say nothing when their sons’ coaches call them “pussies,” “fags,” “little girls,” or “ladies,” or their sons report that they’re being accused of “running like they have sand in their vaginas.” I’ve seen teachers and school administrators interpret boys’ frustration as disrespect and punish them for it. Make no mistake: when our boys see that we aren’t saying anything in their defense, they believe that either we agree or we’re powerless to stand up to this kind of treatment. Either way, if a boy is growing up in this atmosphere, why would he ever ask us for help?
To be continued in Part 2
For more on Masterminds and Wingmen, check out GMP’s “Raising Boys” hangout with Rosalind Wiseman
Feature Photo—Ernst Moeksis/Flickr