In the conclusion of this chapter of her new book, Rosalind Wiseman talks about the norms and enforcement that we teach boys without meaning to.
The following is the second part of 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. You can read the first part here and the second part here.
Boys start hearing the word “gay” or words like it on the playground by the time they’re in fourth grade, and they instantly know that the word is shorthand for a put-down. By middle school, most boys have a clearer understanding of what gay means in the context of Boy World. They know that whatever behavior triggers this accusation must be stopped immediately. Wearing fuzzy multicolored socks, liking the Disney Channel, getting upset when someone’s mean, or defending someone who wears fuzzy socks or likes the Disney Channel makes them a target. In high school, this dynamic is so powerful and pervasive that most boys don’t realize its viselike grip on their behavior. If they see a boy being teased for wearing something not included in the Boy World code of appearance or for complaining about people being mean to him, or if, in older adolescence, they watch a friend take advantage of a girl so he can sexually coerce her, they know they can’t say anything or they’ll be labeled as gay. (This is one of the reasons effeminate boys often align themselves with high-social- status girls. Such girls are an effeminate boy’s best protection against boys who want to go after him, because if they do, they’ll have to answer to the girls.)
Last week ten close friends of mine were bullying this kid who is exactly like we’ve described him by not having high social status: fat, bad style, weak, etc. I told them to cut it out and that they should leave him alone, and while eight of them stopped, two told me to “stop being a fag.” —Carl, 16
To equate speaking out about abuse of power and social injustice with being sexually attracted to other men makes no sense. If it did, heterosexual men would be defined as those who do nothing or who join in when someone’s being abused. Then only gay men would have the courage to stand up. Not only is that inaccurate—gay men have challenges about speaking out similar to everyone else’s—but it’s insulting to straight men.
What’s so frustrating and ironic is that homophobia represses boys’ courage—not the courage to fight someone if challenged, but the moral courage to raise one’s voice when someone is being degraded. Will knows how frustrating this can be.
I know many gay people and have many family friends who are gay, and I have to say, one of the most frustrating things about going to my school is how they use terms like “fag” and “gay.” The even more aggravating part is how, if I imply that we shouldn’t be derogatory to gay people, I’m somehow “gay.” —Will, 15
Thank you, Will. The same way someone who advocates animal rights isn’t an animal, a person who advocates gay rights isn’t necessarily gay. —Matt, 16
We really could stop this. By “we” I mean parents, teachers, administrators, and any adult who works with kids. How we do this is by being honest about our own behavior. Certainly there are some adults who are actively part of the problem. But many more of us are bystanders.
The simple definition of a bystander is a person who’s present at an event but doesn’t take part. In reality, it’s a lot more complicated. Bystanders are convinced to join the person abusing power because they believe they’ll sacrifice their position in the group if they speak out. If bystanders are silent (which some define as being neutral), their “non-action” either looks like support for what the bully is doing or sends the message that they’re powerless to stop him. This isn’t to say that being a bystander who speaks out is easy. Far from it. Speaking out against the ALMB power dynamics is terrifying, and boys know this like they know how to breathe. And so do you.
Let me give you an example. Imagine you’re driving a group of boys back from practice. Your child is sitting shotgun, constantly scanning the radio or his phone for everyone’s perfect song. The other three boys are rehashing their day. Everything is good until you hear one of the boys, Josh, say to another, “Mike, you’re so retarded in basketball! Do you have any idea how gay you looked shooting in PE class today! The girls were kicking your butt!” You immediately tense, look in the rearview mirror to gauge the kids’ reactions, and wonder if you should say something. In that instant, several thoughts go through your head. You know it was bad but kids say words like that all the time. All the other kids are laughing. If you say something, you’re going to embarrass your child and you’re going to be known as the uptight parent. It’s inappropriate to set rules for other people’s kids. Or worse, what if the other kids get mad at your son because of what you say? And then the moment passes.
The hard truth is that this is the adult behavior that makes children believe adults support bullies or are powerless to stop them. These are also the actions that come across as not wanting to be “the parent” in difficult situations. Here’s how you can handle it differently: Take a deep breath, focus on what you’re about to say as you pull the car over, and put it in park. Take your seat belt off, turn to face the kids in the backseat, and ignore your son’s silent begging or death stares. As you make eye contact with all of them, say:
You: Guys, using the words “retarded” and “gay” to put people down is unacceptable.
Josh: It’s just what we say! It doesn’t mean the same thing now! Mike doesn’t mind. Mike, tell her you don’t mind that we call you retarded.
Mike: It’s fine. Josh’s just messing with me.
You (still ignoring your son’s death stares): No matter what, it’s unacceptable to call someone gay or retarded to put them down. I know I can’t control what you say, but this is important to me. If any of you want to talk to your parents about what I just said, please do so. (Josh stares at you like you’re crazy, and your son stares out the window pretending he was born into a different family.) Everybody got it? Good—what was the station we were just listening to?
There are three things to point out before we can leave this situation behind. First, please note that Mike had no choice but to agree with Josh. Second, it’s important to end by encouraging the kids to talk to their parents about what you said. Not only because it’s smart to be transparent when you have these teachable moments with other people’s children, but also because you want to avoid any of the kids going home and accusing you of “screaming and totally freaking out” to their parents. Third, I know many parents are very worried that doing something like this will backfire onto their son. The truth is, kids don’t go after a child just because he has a strict parent who has no problem setting limits on other kids. The Joshes in your child’s world go after him because of a combination of factors, like your son tries too hard, is a pleaser, or has low social skills. Also, these kids have to respect and fear you to the extent that they know you won’t let them get away with bad behavior. Today it’s put-downs in the car, tomorrow it’s hanging out at your house when you’re not there. They need to take you seriously.
Don’t worry if you’ve been in this situation and didn’t handle it well. The good thing about hanging out with kids is that if you make a mistake, there’s a 100 percent chance you’ll have another opportunity to try again. Or you can always go back and address it later by starting with, “You know, something was said in the car yesterday that I’ve been thinking about and want to discuss. . . .”
WHAT IF OTHER PEOPLE ARE DRAGGING YOU AND YOUR SON INTO THE ALMB?
It’s not if, it’s when. Parents of girls have lots of experience with intervening when other people try to put their daughters into the Act-Like-a-Woman Box. For example, if someone in your family says anything about your six-year-old daughter’s weight, you tell them to back off and then talk to your daughter about it. But again, we rarely think to intervene when it’s our boys. For example, your mother constantly refers to your son as “the bruiser.” Or you go to the grocery store, your son picks up a box of cereal, and a nice lady says, “He’s so big and strong!” Or your son is eight and cries after striking out in his peewee baseball game and a well-intentioned dad says, “Stop crying! Only babies cry! You’re not a baby, are you?” In any one of these moments, you’re confronted with two big problems. One, someone is forcing your son into the ALMB. And two, what are you going to do about it?
I’m not suggesting that you yell at your mom or the nice lady at the store, “Stop putting my baby in the ALMB!” Or that you grab your son, shake your finger at this dad, and say, “Don’t you dare tell my son he can’t cry! He can cry if he wants to!”
But you do need to say something. I know no one wants to do this, especially dads. (If you’re a dad, maybe you’d do it, but you know I’m accurately describing most dads.) First you have to prepare. Don’t wait until the moment it’s actually happening to think of what to say. Here are a few suggestions. “Mom, I know you love him and want what’s best for him. Instead of talking about how tough he is, can you talk to him about something he’s doing that you think is great?” To strangers, I’d say, “Thanks, but you know what’s the coolest thing about him? He draws animals incredibly well!” Yes, the other person may think you’re strange for saying something so random, but your son will hear you complimenting something specific to him, a skill of his that you admire. He’ll know that the most important people in his life value him for who he is individually.
Why not just blow it off? If we’re talking about a grandparent who sees your kid once a year, then I’d let it go. But if this is some- one your son has consistent contact with, then you say something because this person is helping you raise your child. With the dad at the baseball game, you say something like, “He’s upset, give him a break,” because he’s not just saying that to your son, he’s saying it to all the boys. If you really don’t feel comfortable saying something, then you can talk to the coach. If you want more help with that, go to page 292.
This is messy stuff, and you don’t have to fight every single battle that comes your way. If you’re too tired to have these conversations on a particular day, don’t sweat it. Like it or not, you’ll always have another day. But be proud that you’re taking this on. I see way too many sons whose parents haven’t provided this guidance and support, and so these boys truly believe their self-value is based on fitting in the ALMB. They can lose themselves so easily. When you take on this challenge, your son will know where you and he stand. Proud. For the right reasons.
The purpose of this book, and of all the work I do with boys, is to give them a strategic methodology to rebel against the ALMB so they can come into their own as authentic, strong, and emotionally engaged men. I want boys to rebel and reinvent themselves in a way that makes them feel empowered through the process. Yes, it will be messy. It’ll probably be highly unpleasant on occasion. But if they go on this journey with the right skills and support, they’ll develop insight into their own motivations and the motivations of other people. They’ll be better able to predict the conflicts they’ll get into, and they’ll have the courage to look in the mirror and see what’s staring back at them. They will come into their own as the men they want to be. They won’t be stripped of their passion and go through life accepting mediocrity in themselves and others.
The stakes are so high. Our boys deserve meaningful relationships, the freedom to pursue what interests and challenges them, a feeling of belonging and social connection to others, and a sense that they’re contributing to something larger than themselves. Those four criteria make up the definition of happiness. If we allow our boys to pursue these four goals, I believe they will grow into men who will make us—and themselves—proud.