Are we failing our boys?


Lauren Smelcher Sams


Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model unrelated to this story.

“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 


4 comments so far

  • We have four children - two boys, two girls, and they get treated basically the same. Sounds silly perhaps, but they all get hugs and kisses and told 'I love you'. They all get reprimanded if they do something wrong or dangerous. They get praised for doing something well, and get a 'better luck next time' if they don't succeed. They get taught to stand up for themselves, they get taught that bullying, power plays and manipulations will happen, so don't take it personally. They get taught that both good and bad things will happen in their lives, but they will get through it.They get laughed at if they do something silly, and laugh at us if we do the same. They get taught to be polite and respect others. They get supported when they need it, and sometimes when they don't. We talk about everything and anything..nothing is off limits.
    As for 'girl' vs 'boys'...their father and mother are 'boy and girl'....different, but the same. It is all about how things are 'marketed' to both boys and girls....the good with the bad, the positive with the negative..but ultimately the need to know and believe in 'happy endings' is paramount..that would be the forgotten 99% of the population:)

    Date and time
    October 01, 2013, 9:12AM
    • Working with teenage boys and having them in the family, it is the difficulty some of them can have with talking about things that have happened to them, how they feel and what to do that is concerning. I get an idea that the boys I work with need to get something out when their behaviour builds (often inappropriately). By letting them know you are ready for when they want to talk, it usually comes to a head and whatever it is is spoken about. Others internalise and they are the ones (the quiet) ones I worry about. I have consciously developed an environment that is open, caring, respectful, nonjudgemental, safe and empathic. I talk about issues and feelings that provide openings for the boys to discuss things if they want to. We have discussed feeling depressed, black moods, ways of coping, problem solving. All their feelings are validated, after all it is their perspective that is important.
      Walking and talking can help - that is talking while doing something together often works with boys. Helping them develop the words to describe their feelings and the bodily responses to their feelings helps them develop the language they need to talk about what is going on. This will come to nothing if there is no relationship or an environment of trust, unconditional positive regard and empathy.

      Date and time
      October 01, 2013, 11:28AM
      • So after not being able to find this in a bookstore, I talked to a sales person. The book cover and title you have here are the American edition.

        Anyone in Australia looking to buy this book needs to look/ask for Ringleaders & Sidekicks. That's the Australian edition.

        Date and time
        October 01, 2013, 1:18PM
        • Working with teenage boys, the biggest problem I have is low expectations: their parents have low expectations of them, society in general has high expectations of them, and as a result they grow up believing that they're entitled to a lot for ultimately not doing much at all.

          Most boys have a tremendous capacity for emotional and artistic expression and academic achievement. When they're repeatedly told by their families that "reading and cultural activities are for fags" while still being expected to go to university and study in the professions (more common than you'd think, especially among families with money but no history of university study), they're fed a toxic blend of cognitive dissonance and crippling low expectations - they deserve to be millionaires with Nobel-prize winning supermodel girlfriends just because of the sex they're born with. And when they don't get what they're entitled to due to a lack of academic and social intelligence, they become incredibly bitter.

          I'm yet to meet someone who grew up into a bitter, entitled young man (or woman for that matter) who had average social or academic intelligence. And when they're denied that development by a lacklustre, anti-intellectual culture where wealth, physical appearance and machismo is emphasised over community participation and education, we have a culture with problems.

          Date and time
          October 01, 2013, 1:19PM

          Make a comment

          You are logged in as [Logout]

          All information entered below may be published.

          Error: Please enter your screen name.

          Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

          Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

          Error: Please enter your comment.

          Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

          Post to

          You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

          Thank you

          Your comment has been submitted for approval.

          Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.