Slugs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, Queen Bee Moms & King Pin Dads, Owning Up Curriculum, “Boys, Girls & Other Hazardous Materials,” and the new book Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Here, an exchange with New Inquiry editor Malcolm Harris.

Malcolm Harris: Your methodology is interesting—including as co-­producers the subjects you’re writing about. Can you tell me a bit about how that works and why you choose to do it, both in Masterminds and in your past work?

Rosalind Wiseman: I included the boys/guys because I can’t imagine writing the things I do without asking the people I am writing about to critique my words. Because here’s what I imagine: Me standing in front of a group of high school students “telling” them what their social world looks like and how they should navigate it—and being completely wrong. I know I don’t get everything right—and I would never be able to because every teen has their own experience—but the thought of going in front of them telling them what their lives are like makes my stomach turn. Not only because I don’t think I have the right to do that but also because I have a very deep motivation to not come across as yet another arrogant, presumptuous, patronizing adult. As I write this to you right now, I just saw that a student lit themselves on fire at a high school about 20 minutes away from me. How could I possibly think I know what’s going on in kids’ lives without asking them?

MH: Your concern with dignity is the bedrock for Masterminds, which I didn’t expect. Outside the World Social Forum or Chiapas, you don’t hear that language very often, especially as it pertains to kids (which I mean broadly and non-pejoratively). Where does your concern with dignity come from?

RW: I chose the language I use with and about young people very carefully because I believe they deserve to spoken to with integrity and honesty. Adults can be so patronizing or hypocritical in how and what they speak to young people about, that adults in general lose credibility. And because of that, even if they’re well-intentioned, they are incompetent moral and ethical guides.

In this case, I have always used dignity in talking to young people because its definition is tied to inherent worth. As in, everyone has the right to be treated with dignity (i.e. have their voice heard) and has the responsibility to treat others with dignity as well. In contrast, I think the word respect is either overused or incorrectly used to the point where any true meaning is lost. Many years ago I became incredibly frustrated with how the word respect was used by adults with young people. For example, often when adults say, “Respect your elders,” they mean, “Obey your elders.”

Respect, according to its Latin origins, means to admire someone based on their accomplishments. Respect is earned, dignity is given. Having respect for someone is a choice each individual has the power to make. But what compels you to respect that person? We are often taught that respect equals obeying and/or fearing someone with more power or status than you. But if that person acts unethically or isn’t upholding the dignity of those around them, especially those with less power, should a young person be compelled to “respect them?” No.

For example, why should a child respect his principal if that principal allows a student, teacher, coach, school resource officer, etc. to dehumanize or humiliate another child?

Dignity is also a touchstone for me. I constantly tell my students that even if you have every reason to seek revenge against someone else, your true character and how you choose to conduct yourself matters in moments of crisis and conflict. You don’t roll over, you’re not turning the other cheek, but it is the moment when you strive to treat the person with inherent worth. I remind myself of this all the time because I am certainly not immune to feelings of anger and desire for retribution. It’s in these moments that your actions have the best chance of being righteous—as in just to yourself and others.

The way you write about physical confrontation reminded me of an old post by the blogger The Last Psychiatrist in which he describes the way schools discourage righteous behavior in kids. You actually offer a set of eight things boys should think about beforehand, rather than the standard “Get an adult” advice—even going so far as to suggest there are good and legitimate reasons for schoolyard fighting, like self-defense and the defense of others. Why do you think teachers and administrators are so invested in a zero-tolerance approach to physical conflict between kids?

If we don’t educate ourselves, be self-reflective, or honest about what our children’s lives are truly like, we contribute to their alienation and we will be unable to provide insight and guidance to them. So often as adults we chose one extreme or the other (never fight or you have to fight to truly get respect) and if we really took a moment to think about what we are saying to them, we’d realize we are saying things that, even if we truly believe them, don’t actually help our kids to handle themselves competently in the world.

There’s a lot in the book about representations of sex and sexuality—both with regard to Internet porn and ­sexting—but not much on teens having sex with each other. That happens to be the case for actual teens too, with the number of 15-to-19 year olds claiming to have had sex down from 1988 to 2010 by about 10 percent for girls and about 20 percent for boys. Is teen sex necessarily a problem? What right do you think teenagers have to sexual expression and exploration? How can parents mediate between the famous Mean Girls sex-ed scene (“You will get chlamydia and die”) and the compulsory sexuality of raunch culture? How do you find a balance as a parent between the knowledge that emergent sexuality is an important part of a healthy adolescence and not wanting your kids having sex in your house?

I recently attended the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas where I interviewed porn stars and directors. I went because I believe it is my responsibility to learn as much as I can about cultural influences on gender dynamics and adolescent sexuality. I don’t think you can be a parenting expert today without educating yourself about pornography.

I have just begun to process what I think about what I’ve learned there, but my central focus is the same as before I went to AVN. Young people have the right to come into their sexuality without shame despite living in a culture that is constantly exploiting their sexuality (mostly girls) or gives them such a regressive constrained gender lens in which to explore their sexual desires. The bottom line is teens have the right to come into their sexuality on their own terms.

What is a problem is teens who have natural sexual curiosity looking to porn to give them a readily available source of sexual information and imagery that so often portrays the rape “fantasies” as the sex that women really want, the all-powerful male dominating the weak woman, or the good girl gone bad who wants to do whatever her sexual partner wants, game for anything. And since it’s so easy to find whatever fetish you can think of online, it’s just so easy for teens and children to think of the most ridiculous thing possible, look it up, and see disturbing things without being able to process it productively. They can see people look like they’re really hurting each other. Kids and teens probably aren’t going to know about safe words, and even if they did (because their mom bought 50 Shades and left it around the house), how does the parent explain that power dynamic to them in a developmentally appropriate way?

I am continuing to struggle my way through how to talk to parents and teens about porn but I do know reactionary fear never works—no matter the subject.

In the section of Masterminds on “Gray Areas” you talk about admitting complexity to kids. You imagine a hypothetical conversation with a 15-year-old about drinking at parties and suggest focusing on possible consequences rather than moralizing. You write, “If we want them doing the right thing, we have to explain the wrong choice in terms that truly matter to them.” In a society that’s constantly bombarding kids with anxiety about their futures, do you think there’s a danger in emphasizing social consequences like that? I remember a guy in college who wouldn’t have an underage drink at 20 because he wanted to be a politician and he feared it could damage his future—is he really who parents want their children to be?

I would distinguish between career aspirations (like your friend the politician) and a calling or profession as an extension of one’s passions. Yes, it’s a sound bite but one of the few, I believe, that are true. One of the big challenges is to get parents to see how they speak to their children about exactly this issue beyond the sound bite. That was something I really learned from the boys. If we can get parents to get beyond “Always try your best” “Things are just going to get harder ...” “I know what it was like to be in X grade”—things could really change for the better.

On passions, how do you think parents should talk with their children about passions that are risky in one way or another? I’m thinking particularly, given the recent media attention, of football, but it applies to a kid who gets really into drug-based guitar music too, or a daughter who really wants to do beauty pageants.

As a parent I want to know why my child is passionate about what he’s doing, because passions driven by what the overall culture says we should value need to be challenged. Beauty pageants come to mind most easily—a girl being passionate about conforming to a rigid regressive demand of female beauty and behavior is something I would have a serious problem with. But I am just as demanding of my sons about why they’re interested in the things they’re into—they love pistol shooting. They love knowing about guns. My older son loves throwing a knife. I know from personal experience (it’s my throwing knife he’s using) why it’s fascinating and the feeling that comes over you when you throw a knife, whether you’re male or female, but the fantasy in his head of the all-powerful, emotionless male isn’t lost on me. He also plays football—I’m not crazy about that—but I respect and trust his coaches, and he needs the physical outlet. But for all his passions, it’s been non-negotiable for me and his father that he experiment with other forms of self-expression, like art. This is the reason that he is now spray-painting (freehand and stencil) his room with our blessing. In my mind, at least, it’s an ode to Banksy.

How can parents offer consistent messages when the larger society can’t make up its mind? Take marijuana for example, you have the law saying it’s a dangerous narcotic and then you have Sanjay Gupta on TV saying it’s medicine. How do you talk to your children about laws that don’t make sense or contradictory rules that they’re still bound by? How do you instill honesty while also teaching the kind of day-to-day hypocrisy being alive requires?

I can answer this as a parent. Both my husband and I admit to our children that laws are often arbitrary and unequally applied. When pot became legal in Colorado—where we live—we talked to them about the three-strikes law, the racist application of crack cocaine laws starting with the Reagan era, etc. But I believe strongly that I communicate what the laws are that could possibly apply to my sons as they become teens. If they break those laws, they will be held accountable. And more important, insofar as alcohol and drugs, it’s much more important to me to talk about how vulnerable it makes them to get involved with screwed-up, unethical things going down—whether or not they get officially “caught.”

How do you think the increased social importance placed on college admissions has affected the way we think of good parenting—if you think it has at all?

One of the most important things I would change about parenting, and it’s closely tied to the passions question, is persuading parents to value their child learning something that they can do throughout their life. Valuing craft, knowing how things work, and being able to fix things in the physical world should be valued highly—no differently than going to college. Now that I am living outside the D.C./NYC world, I think people do value it more highly in Colorado and you can see it in daily life.

When the flood happened in September, no one panicked; people here have a sense of being able to handle things in the physical world. Everyone had the things they needed, and if they didn’t, someone else did who helped them out. I now realize how important this is. During the flood there was no panicked craziness at the hardware stores. I stood in disbelief as people’s houses were literally being washed away and they were calmly figuring out what was the best sump pump to use. In D.C. when there is a weather emergency, people have no idea how to take care of themselves beyond running to the market to buy milk. They shovel out parking spaces in front of their house and then put up folding chairs to mark their territory. We need competent people in the world, and that may not be about going to college.