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I spend a lot of time thinking about boys -- their aversion to haircuts, their obsessive interest in technology and why they constantly leave their dirty socks lying around. I worry about how my two middle school sons will handle being, according to what they tell me, the only boys on the planet who do not have an X-box. I marvel when my second grade son drops to the ground to try doing push ups and tells me he’s working on his six-pack. I worry about all four of my sons navigating a school system that sometimes seems to be dominated by more communicative and organized girls.
With these and other concerns about raising four boys, I dove into Rosalind Wiseman’s new book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Your Son Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Author of the best-selling Queenbees and Wannabees, Wiseman interviewed over 160 boys (ages 10 to 20) to present an eye-opening portrait of the life of boys from middle school and beyond. Among her unexpected findings are these six things that all moms of teen boys should know.
Boys only act like they don’t care about friends, family or schoolwork. Even when they care deeply, boys learn to avoid showing fear, love, sadness or even giddy enthusiasm because they feel pressured to “act like a man.” From the never-smiling Batman to the grim-faced protagonists of video games like Halo4 and Assassin’s Creed, boys’ animated heroes are a terse, non-emotional bunch. Parents, who urge their sons to “get themselves under control,” coaches who talk about “throwing like a girl” and peers who mock coloring, singing or the Disney channel, all push boys to assume this default setting of manly indifference. But with support and communication, parents can help boys overcome this pressure and grow into, as Wiseman puts it, "authentic, strong and emotionally engaged men."
The idea that boys are easier or “less complicated” is a myth. Boy-world is filled with constraining social dynamics and roles just as girl cliques are, says Wiseman. These include “masterminds” who rule their own small social groups with put-downs, deciding what’s funny, what’s stupid and when to get up from the lunch table. The remaining “wingmen” find ways to fit into their group by taking on roles like “the entertainer” (the jokester, who can end up struggling to be taken seriously), “the bouncer” (big, physically brave, often manipulated by others) or “the conscience” (who always worries about getting caught). Friendship prevails, but it can be riddled with conflict, insults and festering resentments.
Parents often think their sons don’t have social conflicts because they don’t ask for help. A boy may think there's nothing he can do about a friend’s teasing that won’t result in even more teasing, with the perpetrator hiding behind a line like, “Dude, I’m just messing with you. Why are you making such a big deal?” So, the boy will likely shrug it off, pretending not to care (since, of course, it’s not manly to have hurt feelings). One of Wiseman's best tips for getting boys to open up about conflicts? Keep it short and talk about it while playing a video game.
Video games are an integral part of boy culture, and parents rarely ask the right questions about them. When trying to regulate their son’s gaming, parents often focus on limits and appropriateness, while learning little about the games themselves. (I cringe in self-recognition here.) While limit setting and appropriateness are important, parents need to know what happens during games. Are boys gaining a sense of mastery, engaging in careful planning and organizing or working through challenges? Or are they being exposed to sexism, racism, or internet bullying? This possibility made me shudder: What actually was going on during the hours my sons spent playing Minecraft this summer?
Porn is inescapable and parents need to talk to their sons about it. Children learn from a young age to seek information on the internet, and will likely seek to learn something about sex online, too. Even the best parental controls in the world cannot extend to the computers of friends and neighbors. (Confession: This suggestion both shocked and horrified me.) Parents can’t talk to their sons about sex without addressing pornography since they have or will see or hear something about it. Wiseman's sample dialogue for talking to boys about porn includes the analogy “Porn is to sex like the WWE is to fighting” and is so good, that I might just have to read it aloud to my sons. That is, when I get up the nerve.
Communicating effectively with boys requires a delicate touch. Trained early to avoid oversharing, boys clam up at the first sign of too much interest from a parent -- too many questions, too much emotion, too much meddling. “Boys won’t talk to people who they think will patronize them or overreact, no matter how good their intentions might be.” To convince boys you have good advice to share, says Wiseman, a parent often has to respect their boundaries and above all: Stop trying to fix the problem yourself.
Elizabeth Hammond Pyle lives in Boston with her husband and four sons. She blogs about her garden, her family and their creative adventures at Bottle Branch. Follow her on Instagram and Google +.