Teen Boys: Mean or Misunderstood? | St. Louis Public Radio

Teen Boys: Mean or Misunderstood?

Sep 10, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 3:19 pm

Rosalind Wiseman literally wrote the book on the complicated and often fraught relationships between teen girls. Her book Queen Bees and Wannabes inspired the movie Mean Girls. Now Wiseman's latest book explodes myths about the lives of adolescent boys. It's called Masterminds and Wingmen, and Rosalind Wiseman joined host Michel Martin in Tell Me More's parenting roundtable with regular guests Jolene Ivey and Lester Spence.

Rosalind Wiseman's Roundtable Highlights

On Stalling The "Car Talk"

"Many people like me, myself included, have been saying to parents, 'Oh when you get your kid in the car, you should be having 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."

On Whether Silence Feeds Slurs, Racism

"For so many boys especially in positions of race privilege or gender privilege for something or another reason, there is a feeling of 'I get to do whatever I want because the other person is not telling me that this is a problem. So I'm just going to keep going. And the more they are silent, the more right I have or the more justification I have that if they ever say something to me, I get to blow it off even more.'"

On Good Guys, Bad Actions

"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 ... when you're a teenager at a party and you see something going wrong, very wrong; and it's your friends who is perpetrating it, that you are actually preconditioned not to 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, you'll be ridiculed or dismissed."

On Whether To Encourage Passion For More Than Sports

"Overall, girls are given much more license and freedom to be public about their passion about things. Boys can be passionately public about fantasy football...But it's not okay in many different ways for boys, it's this feeling of 'If I speak out about something I'm passionate about, I will be ridiculed or dismissed. Or I will be emasculated.'"

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. We're going to continue our conversation with Rosalind Wiseman about her latest book "Masterminds and Wingmen." This new book explores the world of teenaged and preteen boys and tries to debunk some common misconceptions about what Roz Wiseman calls boy world. She's staying with us and we've invited some of our regular moms and dads to join her and share their own experiences as parents of boys. Lester Spence is a political scientist professor at Johns Hopkins University. He's the father of three sons and two daughters. And Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker. She's also the founder of a - the cofounder of a parenting support group and she's the mother of five boys. Welcome back to both of you. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now you've both been listening to Roz Wiseman talk about the book. And one of kind of her key takeaways from the work is that a lot of times boys' problems fly under the radar. That they actually kind of have very deep and complex feelings about a lot of issues but that a lot of times people don't notice that they're having them. You know, people say, oh, boys are easy. And she says in the books that 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. Jolene, what about that? Does that resonate?

IVEY: Absolutely. I know one of my kids is very sensitive and he hadn't said a word about anything being wrong at school and one day I went to visit the class for some reason - he was in elementary school, I think sixth-grade - and I noticed he was wearing shin guards. And I took him aside, I was like, dude, why are you wearing shin guards in the middle of the day? You're not at soccer or anything. And he said, oh, no that girl who sits across from me, she kicks me under the table all the time and I can't get her to stop and I can't get the teacher to listen. She always accuses me if I try to defend myself. So I just wear shin guards now. And I thought, oh my God, you know, you poor kid. Later, I talked to that mom and her view of her daughter was completely different from my son's. She thought that her little hothouse flower could not go on to public school for middle school. She had to go to private school because she was such a delicate creature. I was so annoyed.


MARTIN: Lester, what about you? I fear for that mother, I wonder what happened. But anyway, Lester what about you?

SPENCE: You know, with three sons I think to a certain extent it resonates. But the challenges we have, particularly with our two younger sons - we had signs. So our middle son's the most empathetic of all five in some ways. We noticed the change particularly when he transitioned to a middle school, to the neighborhood middle school, and then his grades just started to reflect what we kind of already knew. And talking to him we could get - we could get a sense of what he was dealing with. It wasn't like he was withholding but still there was a - the challenge we had in talking with him, we don't - I don't believe listening to Ms. Wiseman, I don't think it was boy center. I think that we would have the same challenges dealing with the same issue for one of my daughters.

MARTIN: But why is that? I mean, just because of the circumstances or is there another factor involved, which is race? I mean, this is one of the things that I know, Roz, in your research you've always had or are clear to have, you know, diverse groups of people that you work with and report on. But I know one of the things that a lot of African-American parents that I know who have been exposed to your work say that, look, in your book you talk about how raising boys is - or people have this misconception that raising boys is easy compared to girls. But I think among the black parents I know, they wouldn't understand that because their constant concern is not so much what their boys do but how their boys are viewed in the world. And that presents this whole set of complications. I mean, do you want to answer - do you want to address that?

ROSALIND WISEMAN: Who is it - is it to me?

MARTIN: Roz, yes.

WISEMAN: Sure, sure, of course. We did a lot of talking about that with parents and with boys for the book. It's one of the reasons why I spent a lot of time - there are two books for this, there's a companion book for boys that I'm offering for free to the boys called "The Guide," and one of the biggest things for me was - you know, I knew - this is one answer to, you know, of 20 of what your question is - that I knew that boys were making racist comments to each other and joking. I knew that.

And I knew there was a fine line between - especially in - even in multiracial groups of kids that there was this teasing that was going on and much of it often was about something to do with race. I didn't know - or I didn't fully understand how often it was happening and how horrible it was to kids. Not just black kids, but to Hispanic kids, to Muslim kids and I think this is actually something that I don't think parents really, really get at - most white parents really get at all. About how racist some kids can be under this guise of we're just joking and we're just messing around. So one of the things that I did in "Masterminds" - and very much pointedly with the boys in "The Guide" - is this list of things that are never funny.

And also being able to say to someone in a position of race privilege - the reason that the person doesn't want to tell you every single time you say something that is ignorant or clueless or you're trying to bond but it's not working or it's actually really aggressively racist as a absolutely - way to put the other kid down is here are the reasons why.

And I think this speaks actually to both gender issues and what you were just saying about boys and girls, right, is that there are times - there are issues that are going to be universal. And so to be able to address them very specifically with boys about that there is a line that you cannot cross but for so many boys, especially in positions of race privilege or gender privilege, for something for another reason, that there is a feeling of I get to do whatever I want because the other person is not telling me that this is a problem. So I'm just going to keep going.

And the more they are silent the more right I have or the more justification I have that if they ever say something to me I get to blow it off even more. So that's just one answer to, you know, an incredibly complex question that you just asked me that I could spend hours and hours on. And the boys and I did spend hours and hours unpacking.

MARTIN: Lester, you wanted to say something?

SPENCE: Yeah, I just wanted to say, quickly - two things quickly - one is that my middle son is actually in an all-black neighborhood school and what's going on there - it is something about race, but it's really more about the dynamics dealing with kids, academically successful kids, in a working-class neighborhood school as opposed to a magnet school that's all black. The kid that actually goes to an integrated school - he doesn't have any of those challenges and it's probably in part because I'm his parent.

MARTIN: There's so many things we could talk about but I do want to - and I do want to talk about the romance - romance and sexuality a little bit more. But I do want to spend another minute here on this question, Jolene, of - I think a lot of parents are concerned about is the feeling that boys give up.

I mean, it used to be that education discriminated against girls. I mean, you know, and around the world I think people have a conception that, you know, education around in most of the world discriminates against girls. But I think a lot of people feel in this country it's the opposite - that something has changed where boys are actually kind of always at the back of the bus in how they're viewed. And to the point where some of them give up. Jolene, have you experienced that?

IVEY: Well, absolutely. And I know that there's an assumption a lot of times that the teacher will view the boy as being less smart. And that can be very detrimental to the kid because kids will reach whatever bar you set. And I know that kids do, like Roz was saying earlier, kids want to be in a gang. They want to belong. And so when you're - when you set the tone for your gang, your family gang or your neighborhood gang, that you want your kids to belong to - part of membership needs to be education. Needs to be - oh, you're doing well in school, that's great. That's not a negative, that's great. Being smart is cool. So you have to start with them young so you can get the kids to start to believe that they are smart, and being smart is valuable because otherwise kids and teachers start to view being smart as not being cool.

MARTIN: Yeah, Roz, can you talk about that?


MARTIN: Because you did talk about that some of the boys said, who were in some of these advanced classes, having a lot friends who didn't want to do it. Why is that?

WISEMAN: Because they would rather be the best among mediocre than to truly challenge themselves. I think we've gotten to a place where boys, a lot of boys - and culturally the issues of boys taking the right risks of engaging in their passion, being open about their passion - I would actually wind it back about education and say what we're really missing for boys overall is that we are not allowing them to engage and - to engage and find their passion and be proud of that in comparison to girls.

And so the girls can openly say I want to change the world - I see something wrong about it and I'm going to change the world. I want to make some things better for animals, I want to do something good for the environment. Overall, girls are given much more license and freedom to be public about their passion about things.

Boys can be passionately public about fantasy football, they can be publicly passionate about something that they feel that is conditioned - of like it's OK to feel this way. But it's not OK to take - in many different ways for boys - it's this feeling of, if I speak out about something I'm passionate about I will be ridiculed or dismissed or I will be emasculated. And so it is so incumbent. And this is why, you know, we can talk about, you know, we've got these cultural messages coming on at boys that are problematic.

But what's so amazing to me is that in schools if you have leadership in schools that truly, truly appreciates boys and it says you have the right to be passionate about changing your life, about your experiences. Wherever you fit, whatever it is about the social hierarchy, wherever you are, you have the right to be passionate about things. To chase your dreams - that I'm going to listen to you, that I'm going to acknowledge the world that you're in and not just lecture you. That my experience with boys is - is that all of this sort of slacker I'm fine attitude that sometimes they give off, or lots of boys give off, is that they will immediately, if they believe you, that they will come forward and that they will try and they will take the right risks.

And that's what we want for boys because for girls what we're seeing is that, yes, of course, they're still getting really toxic messages about being hyper sexualized. But in the midst of that, they're also getting very powerful messages from the culture and from people in their lives that are saying you can do it, don't let anybody stop you. And we're not getting that as much for the boys.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Roz Wiseman. Her latest book is "Masterminds and Wingmen." We're also joined by two of the regular contributors to our parenting and barbershop roundtables - Lester Spence he's a professor at Johns Hopkins, a father of three boys and two girls. Jolene Ivey, a mother of five boys. The time we have left - I just have to talk about this whole question of sexuality 'cause so much of what - that we are talking about publicly and privately has to do with sexuality and too often it's about stuff that goes wrong, you know.

And whether it's a same gender attraction, whether it's bullying related to perceived sexual orientation, whether it's these stories that are in the news about people having sex with girls who're unconscious, you know, and so forth, we've got to talk about it. And I'd like to ask, Roz, is there something that you feel is going wrong - you started to touch on this earlier - in the way we're talking about boys about sexuality?

WISEMAN: Well...

MARTIN: ...Or girls for that matter?

WISEMAN: ...Well, I think sexuality is - you know, we can learn a lot from young people, actually, about being inclusive and understanding of the fluidity of sexuality. I mean, I think that they - I really learn a lot from them.

But the thing I want to touch on for parents because of the - you know, parents who are listening to this, is that, you know, I'm a parent, I've been working with boys for 20 years and one of the things that was so upsetting to me as an educator, and of course as a mother, is that the boys reported to me that even if they had positive relationships with their dads and positive relationships with their mothers, that they were missing conversations about what romance means and sexuality means and being in relationships and acknowledging that these boys wanted and were having deep meaningful relationships with people. And that when their hearts were broken it hurt and that they didn't know how - that they needed the help. And the other part is - and so there's an absence of conversation that I would so much ask parents to talk to their boys about relationships.

But the other part is, is that the boys are also getting some incredibly toxic messages, not from the culture overall but from the people in their lives. So I had to - I listened to boys around the country say to me things like, oh, my dad says to me, well, just look like you're agreeing with them and then just do whatever you want or treat them like mud or and then - I mean, all of these things that were coming from people, from uncles, from grandfathers. And so we have all of these wonderful men who I would love to have more in-depth conversations with their sons and then we've got a few people who are having very visible conversations with the boys that are - that the boys are remembering that are saying just don't get her pregnant. Or think with your other head or just don't care about this because there's plenty of other fish in the sea. And assuming that boys - all they care about is sex. And frankly, over and over again what the boys are saying to me is, sure, we're interested in sex, sure we're very focused on like - on sexuality, absolutely, but my - but we are falling in love and we need to figure out how to navigate this and I don't know who to talk to.

MARTIN: I just want to - we only have a couple of minutes left. I want to hear from the other parents about this. Jolene, a final thought from you? Is there a question or something you really wish you could solve or just a piece of advice you want to pass on?

IVEY: Well, on the other hand - on the one hand, she's talking about romance and I know that that's an issue. But I really don't worry about that with my kids yet and maybe I should. I'm much more worried about them being respectful of girls, making sure that they're never doing anything that could be construed as rape, by either the girl or anyone else because that's really detrimental. And of course you don't want them to get anybody pregnant.

But I want them to always remember how things are viewed in our society differently with boys and girls because the stakes are so high with girls. If a guy has sex with a girl and people find out about it, it's not viewed in the same lens the way it is for a girl.

And when I found a picture on my - one of my kids' screensavers, on his phone, his screen saver - half-naked girl that he'd been seeing. I was like, how did this get here and how would her mother feel about you having that on your phone? So that made him remove it. But he didn't see it negatively. The girl obviously sent it to him or he took it and allowed it. But the stakes for her are going to be higher in the future if it gets out that this picture is out on my son's phone.

MARTIN: Lester, as typical women we squeeze you out into a minute and didn't give you a chance to speak. Could you give us a...

SPENCE: ...Yeah, the guy who's on the recorder is like laughing at me right now.

MARTIN: Exactly.

SPENCE: The guy's taping me. So real quick...

MARTIN: ..Final thought from you.

SPENCE: Yeah, so I am - this is the area I'm probably the weakest in, in one way in that I haven't had conversations about sex and sexuality with any of my children really. But what I have done is...

MARTIN: ...You left it to your wife?

SPENCE: No. But what I have done is I've modeled right speech around them, right? So when I read, and I sped read Roz's book before I got here, when I read about those fathers saying those things to my kids - I can say that I've never said any of that stuff to my children and that I'm extremely respectful around women and around people in general and respectful of sexuality, as well, because the reality is in my case, I'm raising black boys, right. And as much as we can talk about how boys are treated, black boys have a very different standard even in that. So I want them to represent excellence in everything they do. So I try to make sure. Like I said, I'm not perfect but to the extent that just by my language they have a standard. They know that there are certain types of ideas they're not supposed to have.

MARTIN: Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins. He's a father of five, three boys and two girls. He's with us from Baltimore. Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, Jolene Ivey, a Maryland state lawmaker. Cofounder of a parenting support group and a mother of five boys. Roz Wiseman is the author most recently of "Masterminds and Wingmen." That book hits the shelves today. She's the mother of two boys and she was with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you all so much for joining us. More to talk about, clearly.

WISEMAN: Thanks, Michel.

IVEY: Thank you.

SPENCE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.