The Rules for Being a Boy

Parenting expert Rosalind Wiseman explains peer dynamics in 'Boy World.'

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Bullying, hazing, school shootings and sexual assaults make for terrifying headlines. But these events don't happen in a vacuum. In "Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World," parenting expert and author Rosalind Wiseman collaborated with teen boys to explain peer dynamics and how they can be navigated. Wiseman recently spoke to U.S. News about incorrect stereotypes and how adults can help boys cope with the challenges they face. Excerpts:

Are adolescent boys commonly misunderstood?

Yes. Because we say things like: Boys are simple; girls are complicated. And because we don't think of them as being able to have complex friendships or conflicts in their friendships. It's part of this self-fulfilling prophecy of we don't believe that boys have these problems, so boys don't talk to us about these problems.

What did you learn in your research?

I learned that boys oftentimes feel that people are talking to them in sound bites of advice that do not in any way acknowledge the complexity of their lives. I learned that a lot of people dismiss boys in stereotypes that they would never outwardly say about girls, like all boys care about is chasing girls, eating nachos and playing video games. We say things that are very derogatory or dismissive of boys that we would never, ever say publicly about girls.

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What are the rules of "Boy World" and is it similar to "Girl World"?

In our communities, [certain] people can speak, and they will be listened to – even when they're lying or covering their tracks. And [if you are not one of them], then people will dismiss you or not take you as seriously. It's the basis of power and privilege and how discrimination works. For that reason, it doesn't matter what gender you are, [but] the way it's expressed is different.

For example?

A minority of boys take the power and privilege they have and take advantage of people who have less power, like in hazing or sexual assault. But the majority of boys who know that this is going on have been in friendships or relationships with those boys for a long time. And lots of times they've been having power plays for years before. And if those people abuse it, you're really conditioned to not say anything. Boys need to be held accountable when they abuse power just like girls should.

Is this dynamic cross-cultural?

I think there are things that are generally applicable, meaning being part of a group is always really important to human beings. And it's not a bad thing; it's human nature. Being socially connected makes our lives meaningful. But having conflicts in groups is also inevitable, and so are power plays and so is abuse of power. And that spans across cultures.

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How can parents know if their son is being bullied?

One of the things that boys do a lot is that they will [tell] their parents: "This person's bothering me or teasing me." And lots of times parents say, "Well, that's what kids do," especially with boys. And then the boys will think, "Well, I'm weak for asking for help." So, instead, I really want parents to say something like, "Can you describe it to me more specifically?" Because boys usually talk in very generalized terms to see how you're going to handle it.

Are today's Boy World rules vastly different from previous generations?

What I think is different about this generation of boys is a knowledge and an intolerance of adult hypocrisy. There is sort of a general belief among boys that adults often say one thing and then they don't have the courage to do what they say. Or they're just paying lip service to it. But when boys get somebody who is upstanding, then that is absolutely transformative, and the boys desperately want it. They want men and women in their lives who they can respect.

How should adults reach out to boys?

First of all, you have to stop minimizing or dismissing their experiences. Their hearts do get broken. They get dumped. It hurts. Even if they don't tell you, it's really hurtful. I think boys want to be seen and acknowledged. They want our opinion, but they don't want us to be judgmental.