SPEAK: What Boys are Saying (and what not to ask)

Everyone thought Rosalind Wiseman’s newest book on boys, Masterminds and Wingmen, Helping Our Boys Cope was going to be impossible to write. Asked why and she says the reason is obvious.

“Because boys don’t talk. At least that’s the stereotype, which is often reinforced by peers,” Wiseman says.

The New York Times bestselling author of Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that inspired the 2004 hit film Mean Girls, warns against this kind of stereotyping. “I think people look at the surface of boys and believe what they see and don’t give credit to the thought that boys are much more complex.”

That complexity, along with how to better communicate with boys, will be the topic of Wiseman’s discussion when she joins Colorado Academy as a SPEAK presenter on September 23 at 8:30 a.m. This will be the second time in the past several years that Wiseman has spoken on the CA campus. She says she wants to break the stereotype that “boys are easier and less complex than girls.”

“When we give into these expectations—when we say girls are hard and boys are easy—we expect girls to be difficult,” she says. “Girls then rise to that expectation. It gives license to normalcy to be mean, and nasty, and backbiting.”

According to Wiseman, the same is true for boys, giving them license to be aloof, emotionally unavailable and unresponsive. She says this can make parents unaware of how to communicate with their sons, which can have detrimental effects.

“What we can do (to counter this) is to give boys the language to express themselves.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, for every 100 girls between the ages 15 and 19 that commit suicide, 549 boys do. Of boys with mental health challenges, less than 50 percent seek help.

“What we can do (to counter this),” says Wiseman, “is to give boys the language to express themselves.”

In order to find that language, Wiseman interviewed some 200 boys across the country representing a variety of life experiences and perspectives. The product of those interviews yielded many surprising insights. As to the biggest mistake parents make, Wiseman says it’s communication, or more specifically, the barrage of questions parents ask their sons the minute they walk through the door.

Wiseman’s Director of Communications Charlie Kuhn has something to say about that.

“I think parents discount the amount of mental capacity it takes to learn and operate in school—for one, you might be in class with a guy you don’t like and there’s also a girl you have crush on. Those are real things that take a lot of effort to deal with, and as soon as you get home, you think ‘Oh, I’m in my safe place’ and then you’re bombarded with questions.”

The message seems a bit conflicted—communicate with your son, but don’t ask too many questions. As to how parents can find the right balance, Wiseman says it’s a matter of content as well as context.

“Ask a question of content instead of a question to just fill space,” she says. “Also, we don’t often think about who is around when we ask a question. Who and where or how you ask a question is important based on what kind of answer you get.”

And those answers, according to Kuhn, can give a lot of insight into your son’s life.

“In boy culture, the expectation is that if you give weight to complexity, you lose control because you’re acknowledging how messy situations can be, and that’s often perceived as weakness,” Kohl says. “It’s easier to fall into that ‘everything’s-fine’ mentality, giving one-word answers and saying you’re alright, because if you’re not given language to bring forth the complexity of how you feel, it often goes unspoken.”

Shedding light on that language, as well as anticipating problems and how to resolve them, will be the topic of Wiseman’s presentation at the SPEAK lecture. As the mother of two young sons, Wiseman says she’s “in the midst of it, too.”

“I’m not in this to say that I have the truth, and the only truth. I know how humbling this is. I want to be able to share with parents what boys are sharing with me—to get to a place where we can encounter all of these types of problems and be strengthened as a result.”