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Navigating boyhood: an interview with Rosalind Wiseman

'Ringleaders and Sidekicks' author Rosalind Wiseman shares tips for parents to navigate the perils of 'boy world'.

Navigating boyhood: an interview with Rosalind Wiseman

Why turn your attention to boys? Haven’t they always been in an advantageous position? What has changed?

I know in some ways it seems indisputable that boys have an advantage over girls. But it depends on how you define “advantage.” Yes, some boys have social status and power that enables them to silence other people—boys and girls alike. Some boys can use their advantage to hurt other people and not be held accountable. But I don’t think of it as advantage because it’s impossible to have meaningful connections and relationships with other people when you feel entitled to use other people. And for many boys in middle and high school who have barely started puberty, if you asked them who had more advantage, them or the ninth grade girl who looks like she’s eighteen, they’d laugh at you. To them it looks like girls have all the power.

I know you wrote this book with boy editors from every walk of life – were you surprised by what the guys revealed to you?

Yes! I knew that boys had complex emotional lives but there was a lot I didn’t know. Some were funny – like boys hate when parents ask them a million questions when they pick them up from school or practice. But others were very serious. I didn’t realise how often adults dismiss their feelings. I didn’t realise that boys regularly have experiences where people assume they’re either hormone crazed jerks or lazy slackers — or both. I didn’t realise how complicated lying is in “Boy world.” That boys lie for many different reasons and our (adult) responses when we catch them need to reflect an understanding of the reason they lied in the first place. If we don’t understand it, we can’t impart whatever values we want to teach them.

How do you think this book will help parents understand boys and help them navigate the middle and high school years?

I am hoping it will make parents realise that behind boys’ silence or “I’m fine” is a person with deep emotional needs and a person who wants meaningful relationships with adults that he can believe in. Parents can support the emotional lives of their sons without making them soft or unable to handle life’s challenges and hardships. Giving them the skills to be socially competent when they’re in conflict with someone or upset with someone is the way for them to be truly secure. The boys want and need this support. I hope this book provides the to bridge to facilitate this conversation.

What do you think the boys would want their teachers, coaches and school administrators to know about them?

I want them to understand how important they are to making a boy believe what an honourable courageous man truly is. Boys often see how hypocritical adults can be and that experience can make a boy not follow his passions and disengage from the things and people in life that he values the most. Every day educators have the opportunity to role model what it looks like to be just, fair, and honourable. They also have the opportunity to be bullies, abusers of power and cowards. I want educators to read Ringleaders and Sidekicks and really hear what the boys are saying about seeing both kinds of men in their lives and strive to do their best for the boys.

What does the world look like from boys’ perspective?

They often feel dismissed as lazy, unfocused, potentially violent and video game obsessed, or hormone crazed jerks or fools. I think they feel that people are constantly putting pressure on them to keep up but aren’t giving them any guidance that actually helps. I think they have to hide themselves, their true self, from everyone. In order to be a ‘real man’ they must fit into the box that society creates and in order to fit they must hide their true self. Many of them realise how confining it is to be boxed in like this and fight against it. Others see the benefits of conforming.
What should parents know about the biggest challenges boys face today?

They can’t ask for what they want. They are often in very powerful social dynamics and don’t feel that they can challenge people who have more power than they do—either in real life in their schools or families or on-line in games or other social networking platforms. Parents also need to know that boys wants relationships with them but they want to be respected and listened to.

Why do boys’ problems slip under the radar and how can parents, teachers and coaches become an influence for good?

Boys are amazingly good at putting up barriers so it feels like there is no way to communicate with them. Sometime they’re so good at it that it feels like there’s nothing on with them. But I also think we don’t want to see boys as complicated people. We want to put them in boxes where we assume they’re simple. And for the boys who are self-aware enough to know they aren’t like that they don’t want to tell us what’s really going on because they don’t think our involvement will help.

What skills do boys need to navigate middle and high school and grow into healthy adults?

They need to learn that asking for help is a strength and a skill. They need to know how to express their anger in healthy ways and they need to know how get help when they feel overwhelmed.

What well-intentioned mistakes do parents make when dealing with boys?

Asking too many questions as soon as they see their son at the end of the day is definitely one. Sometimes I think parents micro-manage their sons and don’t let them fail and then learn on their own.

How do we parents appear to our sons?

It really depends. But I do know that what boys want is a mother and a father who carries their authority with ethical purpose. They desperately want to respect their parents and how those parents conduct themselves.

How can we help our sons develop a support system for handling those issues they refuse to discuss with us? 

We need to acknowledge that sometimes they don’t want to talk to us and that’s ok. But, they need to find someone who they think is reliable, opinionated but not judgmental, and honest who they can talk to who will allow the boy to feel messy feelings, to feel overwhelmed but that by admitting those feelings and then making a plan about how to address the problem that this process empowers the boy to come into his own and be proud of his actions.

Why should parents of girls care about these issues?

Girls have friendships and relationships with boys. They will work with them, and compete against them and they need to know how to do that productively. In addition, parents of girls need to know what boys are thinking about girls so these parents in turn can guide their daughters in the best possible way to have safe, healthy relationships with boys. These girls will turn into mothers and they will want to raise boys who likewise become strong, emotionally healthy men.


Rosalind Wiseman is author of the new book, Ringleaders and Sidekicks (Hachette). Drawing on 20 years of work with boys and her own experience as a mother of two sons, the parenting expert and best-selling author explores the impact of bullying, video games, social media identities, girls and classroom politics on the development of boys in this, her latest book. She offers expert advice to help parents better navigate the perils of ‘Boy World’ and build a stronger relationship with their son during some of their most trying years. Wiseman has previously written the bestselling book Queen Bees and Wannabes.

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