It’s Time to Enter Boy World
Like many parents, I wake every morning with my mind filled with Post-It notes of all the things I’m behind on. On April 12, 2011, I opened my eyes with only one thought: it’s time to write a boys’ book. For years I’ve wanted to write a book for boys that would be a complement to one I’d written for girls, Queen Bees and Wannabes. When parents and teachers would ask me about the possibility, I’d thank them for their confidence and promise that I’d get around to it one day, not really sure that I would. Ironically, my two children are both boys, which always gets a laugh when I’m introduced as an expert on girls. How can that Queen Bees woman, that Mean Girls woman, be the mother of only boys?
The truth is, I’ve always taught boys, and they constantly write to me for advice. But up until now I’ve never publicly shared their struggles and what I’ve told them. Some of their problems are important but small, like “How can I tell a girl I like her?” or “How do I tell a girl I don’t like her?” or “How do I stop my friend from bugging me about how short I am?” Other questions are bigger, like, “I have a coach who screams ‘faggot’ at one of the kids. Some of the other guys are going after him too. I hate it, but what can I do?” “I want to quit the team but I can’t tell my parents.” Or, “My dad always, always thinks I’m guilty of something, or lying, or lazy. Every time he lectures me I just want to explode, but I smile and say nothing. My mom makes excuses for him. I can’t live like this but I don’t know what to do.”
I put off writing a book about boys because I wasn’t certain I could deliver the level of insight that I’d been praised for in Queen Bees. Did I know boys well enough? Could I get them to tell me what I needed to know? I knew that boys are much more complex than popular culture gives them credit for. I knew there was a lot going on beyond their clipped responses like, “I’m fine.” But I wasn’t sure that I could write something that was equal to what boys, parents, and adults who care about boys need and deserve.
I needed a sign.
I got it when I was least expecting it. In the spring of 2011, I met with Cartoon Network’s CEO, Stu Snyder, and Alice Cahn, the network’s vice president of social responsibility, to discuss the possibility of working together on their “Stop Bullying: Speak Up” campaign. I’d brought along Emily Gibson, who helps me strategize new partnerships. As usual, Emily got right to the point. “Stu, I’m really glad we’re meeting, but I’m not sure I understand why. Rosalind is more known for her work with girls, and we know most of Cartoon Network’s viewers are boys, so why her?”
Stu immediately answered. “You can see it in her eyes.”
What’s in my eyes? I wondered. Do I have something weird in my eyes?
“You can see she has boys in her eyes,” Stu said. What was he talking about? Then I realized exactly what he was referring to. I’d seen that look. I’d even written about it in another book, Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. I just hadn’t realized it was my facial expression too. That look says to others: “I’m regularly attacked with Nerf guns as a display of affection. I’m not surprised to receive an email or phone call from the principal. There may have been a time, just once, when I realized the boys’ principal was calling and I pressed Ignore because I just really didn’t want to hear what the boys had done. At any moment I must cope with the following challenges: my children destroying something of high value, hurting themselves doing something mind-blowingly stupid, or facing a hygiene problem so severe that lesser beings would flee or vomit. But because I’m these kids’ mother, I’ll hold them accountable, patch them back together or bring them to someone who can, while shaking my head at the ridiculous reason we’re at this place, seeking help. And yes, I’ll force these desecrators of bodily hygiene to clean up after themselves—even if they claim they can’t smell anything wrong.”
I returned from my meeting in Atlanta, and the next morning I woke up ready to write. I had just needed someone on the outside to let me know I was ready.
For Better and Worse: How I Started the Queen Bee/Mean Girl Craze
There are a few more things to know about me beyond that I have a reputation for working with girls. I’ve taught in schools for almost twenty years. I started by founding a nonprofit organization that taught kids from fifth to twelfth grade a social justice and ethical leadership course I developed called “Owning Up™.” That early work is the basis for the training I still do with educators and administrators. About eight years into teaching, I wrote Queen Bees and Wannabes, a book for parents of girls about what the world looks like to a girl and how parents can best guide their daughters through it.
I wrote about girls because I felt that our understanding of girls and the connection between their friendships and their personal development wasn’t as good as it needed to be. By 2000, a lot had been written about girls, self-esteem, and body image, but I couldn’t find anything intended for a general audience that spoke to girls’ group dynamics. I believed that girls’ conflicts with others were unfairly dismissed as drama and cattiness. We weren’t giving girls real-life skills to handle conflict with their dignity intact. I saw that girls were valued based on their ability to conform to the unwritten rules of what I termed “Girl World,” and that these dynamics in turn impacted girls’ ability to be socially competent as girls and women.
I can’t quite remember the sequence of when and how all this happened, but right before Queen Bees was published, I was profiled in a New York Times Magazine article entitled “Mean Girls.” A few days later, my literary agent asked if I’d talk to a woman named Tina Fey, because she was interested in buying the rights to the book. I had no idea who she was. I’d just had a baby (my oldest son Elijah), so even if I was watching TV, I was so tired I couldn’t remember anything I was seeing anyway.
Before you think I was jumping for joy that someone had asked to buy film rights for Queen Bees, you should know that I was already jaded enough about media and entertainment that I needed to be convinced. I’d had a couple of strange calls from people asking to buy my life rights—which would have made for an extremely compelling story of a woman desperately trying to raise money for her little nonprofit from fancy foundations while wearing clothes decorated with baby vomit.
But I took the call. Twenty minutes later, I was convinced. If someone was going to do something as crazy as taking a nonfiction, how-to parenting book and turning it into a major motion picture, Tina was the person to do it. All I asked of her was that she not make it stupid. She promised, and I believed her. Not only because she was clearly intelligent, but also because she appeared to be motivated in the same way I was. If you’re going to put yourself out there, you can’t do it half-assed. (That said, with more than twelve years of parenting under my belt, I’m much more accepting of personal mediocrity.)
With the popularity of Queen Bees and Mean Girls, I was increasingly called upon to speak on girls’ issues, which was great but also made me uncomfortable. While the attention on girls was needed, the message was also sometimes watered down or used as a way to demonize girls. In addition, with all the conversations about girls, boys, as a distinct group, disappeared. Recently, with the avalanche of attention on bullying and school shootings, the closest we’ve come to recognizing boys’ issues is in our discussions of teen suicides, which we generally attribute to homophobia and lack of gun control. Not that those issues aren’t worth discussing—but they’re far from the only boys’ issues that need to be addressed.
Could I Get Boys to Help Me?
With every book I write, I ask the people I’m writing about to help me. But when I decided to do a book for boys, I remember wondering if it would be possible to get boys to reveal their deepest feelings, thoughts, and most meaningful experiences. Could I get them to answer my questions day in and day out? Would they really read twenty-page drafts of chapters multiple times for no reason other than that they wanted to? (I did offer to write college recommendations if they worked hard.) Yes. They did, and it was far easier than I expected. First, I put out a few calls to schools—public, charter, private, parochial, international, all boys, big, small, urban, suburban, and rural—and held my breath. Almost immediately, schools of every type were on board. Then a few weeks later, as I was wrapping up a high school presentation, I mentioned to the students that I was working on a boys’ book and if anyone wanted to help me, they should please let me know. I couldn’t believe the response. Boys walked right up to me and volunteered. (So did girls, by the way.) After that, I made the request after every presentation. What surprised me the most was who came forward. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense that the “golden boys” with the highest social status, like the athletes, volunteered, but they weren’t the only ones; many different kids volunteered. By email and Twitter, boys found me and told me they were on board. Within a month, I had over 160 boys contributing to what you’re about to read. In their own words, here are a few of them telling you why they did it.
I feel that helping people who are in bad situations I have already been in is a duty. —Mathias, 16
I’m doing it because I want to be part of something bigger that will make a difference for our gender and my “peers,” but also because I feel like our “Boys World” is something that’s been kept in the dark for too long. —Victor, 17
Sometimes I think working on this book helps me more than the other boys. —Grant, 15
I want this book to inform, educate, and reform the social structure of boys in their natural environments. Things happen in the realm of boys’ worlds that are never mentioned in the public eye, or are brought to concern by adults. By contributing to this book, I hope to redefine the way of thinking when it comes to how boys interact. —Cody, 18
Once we began the project, it was nonstop arguing, debating, and laughing—and an occasional tear when boys shared something particularly painful. The boys made me realize that things I’d assumed about them for years were wrong. They told me stories that were so funny and stupid, I cried from laughing. I gave them problems other kids wrote to me about, and they had intense debates about how to help these kids they didn’t even know, then emailed me because they were worried about what had happened to the kid in trouble. They shared their most personal stories, feelings, and opinions—all to help you know how to reach out to the boy in your life in the best possible way.
I’ve also asked parents to share their experiences, concerns, and worries with you. They’re going to tell you some stories that I hope will make you laugh and make you remember that you’re not alone trying to raise these people who sometimes seem determined to make it as rough on you as possible.
We’re going to walk a difficult line in this book. You may read something that challenges you to the core. That’s never pleasant. In fact, it’s usually a highly anxious experience that leaves you wishing you’d left well enough alone. If this happens to you, I’m asking you to face that challenge without shutting down or beating yourself up for being a bad parent.
You also don’t have to like your son or any of the boys he hangs out with. You’re allowed to have moments of resentment when you’re busting your butt for him and he doesn’t seem to notice. You’re allowed to be angry that the child who used to give you hugs and kisses turns away from you. You’re allowed to fantasize about the fabulous carefree life you’d have if you weren’t driving him to games all weekend. You aren’t a bad parent if you go out with good friends and admit these feelings out loud. If you don’t acknowledge them, then you will become one of those parents who robotically smile as they tell you that their kids are perfect, but in reality can’t laugh at themselves or ask for help when they come up against the real-life, no-holds-barred, humbling work that it takes to raise a boy into an honorable man.
How Are You Really Coming Across to Your Son?
I’ve sat with a lot of parents who insist that they’ve talked to their sons about how important honesty and integrity are to them and been completely confused when the boys haven’t acted in ways that reflect those values. In their confusion, they tend to blame others. While it certainly can be true that parents talk to their sons about values, I’ve realized that parents often speak to their sons about their family values without placing them in a context where these values will be called upon. It isn’t enough to say “Be honest” or “Do the right thing,” because in moments of conflict many of us lack the skills to move through the fear and put our values into action. The context of the situation really matters more than a catchphrase. What’s way more useful for boys is to talk to them about what integrity looks like to you under duress. This book will bring these moments of conflict front and center and then show you how to make your values meaningful within the problem your son is facing.
This gets us to role-modeling, one of the most-talked-about concepts in parenting and teaching, but also one that frequently isn’t supported with our actions. Our children aren’t stupid, and they’re not naive. They see when adults around them act hypocritically. They see what we value and believe by our actions, not our words. If we try to present a perfect image of ourselves, they will see through it. In order to earn our boys’ respect, we must examine our own behavior.