I haven’t read this book by Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabees (later turned into the movie Mean Girls), but I have it on order, because I think Rosalind might get boys a little better than the average person.
I’m basing all of my comments today on the review published in the Atlantic, and on the reviews posted by customers at Amazon.com.
Rosalind’s basic premise seems spot on.
Great young men want to have rich emotional lives, but everywhere they turn, people are forcing them to live the stereotype of being a sexist, not-caring, emotionally disengaged, superficial guy. It’s amazing because we turn around and get angry with them when they go over the line, without acknowledging what we do as adults that stifles and silences and shuts boys up from being emotionally engaged people.
It’s kind of incredible that we need a book explaining to parents that boys have emotions, but there you have it. What concerns me about books like these is the possibility that only certain emotions are recognized as valid and worthy – the ones that girls tend to be good at. I worry that emotions like empathy, fear, sadness and tenderness are prized over emotions like anger, defiance, dominance and stoicism.
Of course, both boys and girls experience the full range of human emotions, and while I think we can all agree that every emotion is perfectly valid, HOW those emotions are expressed comes in for some very harsh assessments when it comes to boys.
There is a big difference, too, between acknowledging an emotional response and endorsing how that emotion is expressed. We don’t hesitate to inform our toddlers that they may not bite other people no matter how angry they feel, or how justified that anger is. It’s not the anger that’s wrong, it’s the biting. We teach them better ways to express their anger.
I cringe a little when I hear parents and teachers say “use your words” as an alternate method of expressing X emotion.
Using words is the way that girls tend to express their feelings. Of course, not EVERY little girl wants to talk about her feelings, and plenty of little boys are more than willing to express themselves verbally, but in general, it’s girls who like to “use their words”. And that isn’t a product of socialization. Gender differences are present from birth. From the moment they are born, girls prefer to look at “social objects” – faces, and boys prefer to look at “physical-mechanical” objects – a mobile.
Even baby primates will choose their toys based on their gender. Girl vervet monkeys play with the doll and boy vervet monkeys play with the car.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this at all, but there is something very wrong when we act as though the girl’s innate desire to nurture is better than the boy’s innate desire to run shit over with his car.
What makes me hopeful about Rosalind is that she apparently provides an example of a boy reacting with anger and violence, and punching a hole through the drywall. Her solution is to hand him some drywall and teach him how to repair the damage.
That is probably exactly what my husband would do if our teenage son put his fist through drywall, too. He would learn a whole lot about to repair walls and a long discussion about appropriate responses would follow.
Appropriate responses, however, does not mean NON-VIOLENT responses.
Sometimes, violence is exactly what the doctor ordered. Reducing our home’s value by busting up the walls is not an acceptable form of violence, but there ARE forms that are more than acceptable.
Virtual violence is an excellent way to work through some anger and aggression. A reviewer at Amazon quotes Rosalind at length on the subject, and it looks like maybe she gets it.
“I know is seems impossible to believe that a violent video game based on society’s total destruction would make a guy feel more connected to other people and better about himself. If you look at the game he’s referring to, you may really have a hard time believing it. But what we think doesn’t matter. If boys are telling us that their real lives are so hard and they feel so worthless that escaping into a virtual world makes them feel better about themselves, that’s their truth and it needs to be respected.”
What makes me a little queasy is the idea that boys lives are “so hard” and they “feel worthless”. Is that something boys actually told her, or is she projecting, based on her own interpretation of what triggers anger and the desire for violence in herself?
Maybe boys just wanna blow some shit up? Because it’s fun to blow shit up. It makes boys feel powerful, capable, courageous, dominant.
I’m sure the mums at mumsnet would go absolutely ballistic if they knew the kind of stuff I let my son do, but as parents, my husband and I are engaged in showing our son how to use his desire to be powerful and dominant and courageous for good. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with boys saying “I want to dominate”.
The question is what?
The operating room as the cardiologist? Cool.
The nuclear plant as the top physicist? Cool.
The police station as the lead detective? Cool
The physically disabled boy in class? Not cool.
I’m going to show my ignorance about video gaming here, but I’ll tell you what I know and how I understand the situation.
So, LittleDude plays the Call of Duty games on his Xbox. He can describe the weapons in detail, he knows how to identify particular strategies, he knows about the conflicts the games are portraying, he knows the difference between urban traditional warfare and what the challenges are, he knows the reasons for particular conflicts, he can identify the tanks and planes and trucks and what have you.
Because he plays with his Dad and they discuss all these things in detail. They also have an ongoing conversation about the ethics of war. I think the game punishes you if you do unethical things like shoot your own team mates, and behaving “right” is a huge part of how Mr. JB and LittleDude play.
LittleDude is also allowed to play the game online, but only when his Dad is playing with him. He cannot go and interact with other players on his own. The rule is that he can only play online with adult supervision.
I’m not sure how this all works, but somehow, they get messages.
So, Mr. JB and LittleDude were playing Black Ops on line, and then a message popped up banning LittleDude from any future play. Why? Because no one else could even get a shot off before he killed them. He’s too good and he wrecks the game for everyone else. Then another message appeared asking LittleDude to play a scene (?) in an upcoming Call of Duty. Apparently, one of the programmers was watching him play online and asked him to “test” a new scenario.
LittleDude is seven years old. He’s pretty excited that it’s possible to write and play video games for a living, and if you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he will say “I want to play video games”.
Cue the snarky eyerolls from other parents, but you know what? Fuck them. He might be seven, but he understands how games are made (from computer code) and how they are tested (in beta versions) and that yes, people really DO play video games for a living.
That’s teaching him how to translate his desire for power and dominance and aggression into something positive. Next year, when he is eight, he will be enrolling in his first mixed martial arts class, where he will learn how to use ACTUAL violence in a responsible and mature manner. He will learn to defend himself and act aggressively to protect others, if required. He will learn how to channel his desire to beat the crap out of people and things.
He will not be taught that his desires are wrong and bad. Oh, the girls will be going, too. Chokeholds are important skills for girls to master, too.
Pixie and I totally bond on this subject, and she was recently the recipient of a ton of Mommy wrath when she suggested that a child with a colostomy bag could ward off teasing by carrying some firecrackers. Pixie had her very fragile son out at an adventure camp for physically challenged children, where she stood by and watched him go rock climbing and parasailing and boating and hike up steep mountains.
Pixie refuses to wrap her son in cotton wool or teach him that he must squash his desire to take risks because he was unlucky enough to be born with a few problems.
Screw that. He’s still a boy.
So when the conversation came up about how another boy with a colostomy bag would deal with the eventual teasing and bullying, she told him to carry firecrackers. He could light them, shove them in his colostomy bag and launch a shit grenade at any dickbags who think bullying the kid with no functioning intestines is a good idea.
I think it’s a bloody genius idea.
The other mamas didn’t agree and Pixie got shunned for the rest of the trip. Girl aggression. Le sigh.
This November, LittleDude will be going out with the men and making his first kill, too. Fish don’t count. He’s killed lots of fish. Using a crossbow, he will be given the choice to make the shot that kills a deer, which we will butcher and use for meat over the winter. If he chooses to take the shot – he doesn’t have to, he will also be rewarded with his first beer around the campfire.
Mr. JB and our friend DuckGuy are both preparing LittleDude for the emotional consequences of killing. They talk with him about not wanting the responsibility of death, and that he does not have to shoot. He should only shoot if he feels ready. There is no pressure to “man up” or any bullshit like that. They have let him know that he will probably cry, and that is totally normal, too.
I don’t contribute much to these prep conversations, but just shut up and listen. I’ve never killed anything bigger than a chicken myself, so I don’t know how it feels. But left to their own devices, men experience and manage ALL their emotions without shame or blame or needing to characterize one set of feelings as better than another.
My son is blessed to have these men around him.
So yeah, I think it’s great that Rosalind wants to kickstart a discussion about the deep emotional lives of boys, but the second it veers off into condemning boy’s desires for the “unacceptable” feelings – to be powerful, to be dominant, to control people and things – it becomes just another weapon designed to demonize men and masculinity.
That isn’t going to help anyone, in the long run. Fierce little boys who want to master their worlds and who cry when they kill their first deer grow into men who really do learn to master their worlds and who cry when they hold their newborn sons.
What boys need, more than anything else, is OTHER MEN to guide them through those transitions.
All the books in the world aren’t going to replace a community of men who take responsibility for shepherding their sons into adulthood.
We have a name for those men.
They’re called fathers.
And every child deserves one.
It’s a basic human right. That’s what this whole movement boils down to, doesn’t it? The assurance of basic human rights for everyone, including the right to have and be a father. Not the obligation. The right.
Until that day happens, we will all keep fighting. And blowing shit up, sometimes out of frustration, and sometimes, just because it’s fun!
Lt. Blondell: Lieutenant, why are you doing this?
Lt. Jordan O’Neil: Do you ask the men the same question?
Lt. Blondell: As a matter of fact: yes, I do ask them.
Lt. Jordan O’Neil: And what do they say?
Lt. Blondell: “Cause I get to blow shit up.”
Lt. Jordan O’Neil: Well, there you go.
Lots of love,