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“Hi,” says my Mum.
“Hi,” says my brother.
“How was your day?”
“What’d you do at school?”
So went my poor Mum’s conversations with my brother every afternoon of his schooling life. There was never anything to report, no day was different from the next and for all we knew, he was as silent in the classroom and with his friends as he was with us. It’s a scenario that plays out in cars and at kitchen tables all over the Western world, according to Rosalind Wiseman, author of the new book Ringleaders and Sidekicks – uncommunicative boys plus inquisitive parents equals frustration for all.
Which is why it was a huge surprise to us all, when, at 18, Joel was heartbroken over his first break-up. This kid, who had barely registered an emotion even after our parents split and remarried was suddenly awash in the stuff. None of us knew how to react.
It’s exactly the kind of situation Wiseman wants to help with in her new book, a follow-up to her bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes (the inspiration for Mean Girls). Where Queen Bees focussed on teen girls and “Girl World”, Ringleaders is about teen boys – specifically, the ways we are failing to meet their emotional needs.
Wiseman was inspired to write the book when she noticed that the adults around her were either actively reinforcing stereotypes of teen boys (that they are sexist, uncaring, emotionally distant and superficial) or simply accepting them as fact. “I knew that boys were much more complex than popular culture gives them credit for,” she says. Still, she notes, we don’t always see that boys have “deep emotional lives” because they don’t express themselves the way girls do. Girls, says Wiseman, grow up learning a “framework” for communicating. Parents of girls are aware that their daughters will face specific challenges (poor self-esteem, body image and bullying) and so are more prepared to deal with these problems.
They talk to their daughters about the importance of feeling good about themselves, standing up to bullies and protecting themselves from sexual violence. This is all healthy and important, of course – but the trouble is that, by comparison, boys’ problems can seem deceptively simple and superficial, especially when they have trouble articulating their emotions. We joke that it’s “just how boys are” – and with the exception of characters played by Michael Cera, pop culture has enshrined the grunting, unspeaking teen boy. It can make it seem as if they are problem-free. If only, says Wiseman.
The statistics paint a troubling picture for American boys, on whom the book is based. For every 100 girls aged 6 to 14 with a learning disability, there are 160 boys. For every 100 girls aged 15 to 19 who commit suicide, there are 549 boys. Just 30 per cent of high school valedictorians (students who top their class) are boys. Clearly, boys need to talk. Sadly, they either can’t or won’t. And disconcertingly, when we do notice boys, it’s usually “because they’re somehow failing or they’re acting out in ways that appear thoughtless, reckless, threatening or frightening,” says Wiseman. We haven’t deliberately neglected boys, of course, but there is a complacency around boys’ problems that we don’t see with girls.
Reading Wiseman’s book reminded me of an ex-boyfriend. His emotionally stunted attitude suddenly made a whole lot of sense when he revealed that his father’s entire explanation of sex to him was, “Don’t get them pregnant.” There was no discussion of love, romance, the possibility that he might be attracted to someone of the same sex, or even relationships.
He didn’t even explain the mechanics of sex itself. Compared to the ways we teach girls about sex, this is some downright Neanderthal business. But Wiseman’s words also made me think about family friends, who, guessing that their pre-pubescent son might be gay, appointed a gay friend to be his godfather. They wanted him to have someone close by who knew what he might be going through.
And that, says Wiseman, is exactly what boys crave – role models who nurture healthy relationships and can speak honestly about their feelings. The 200 boys Wiseman spoke to in researching her book told her that they want to be able to “navigate bad things that happen”, but frequently don’t know how to begin the conversation.
Sometimes they feel they don’t even have the right to talk about it. “Because of that, they get to a place where they just push it down,” she says. That’s a pretty scary thought – because one day, they’ll be men, and after that, they might be men with sons of their own, who’ll experience all the same horrors and highs of teenage life as girls do, but without the skills to process them. It all starts in that after-school conversation, says Wiseman – ask meaningful questions of your boys, and you might just be surprised at their