TORONTO - The teen comedy "Mean Girls" was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes," which offered insight into the dynamics of relationships, cliques and conflicts involving girls.
Her latest book "Masterminds and Wingmen" (Harmony Books) offers a male-focused complement to her groundbreaking bestseller, as Wiseman urges adults to recognize that the emotional needs of boys are also deserving of attention.
"I want people to know that boys want deep relationships, that it makes their lives better; that their friendships are important to them and that they have conflicts like everybody does. And that we have to stop dismissing boys' emotional lives," Wiseman said during a recent interview.
"We don't have to have these Hallmark, 'sit around in the circle and tell me your deepest feelings' (moments).' It's just being able to realize there's a lot going on there, so you can see it; and then realize if you reach out, they're going to come to you if you listen. We just have to do a lot of work first on ourselves."
Mother to sons Elijah, 12, and Roane, 10, Wiseman didn't just focus on her own parenting practices and experiences — she went directly to the source. Wiseman sought out boys willing to open up about a vast range of subjects, from stigma surrounding being gay to girl troubles, gaming, social networking and the roles and hierarchies within social groups.
More than 160 boys offered contributions, which Wiseman said helped shape many of the topics in the book, while also aiding in painting a picture of common challenges and dynamics governing what she termed "Boy World."
"Boys have to hide behind this attitude of 'I don't care,'" said Wiseman. "One of the things that happened that was really extraordinary was the boys were able to say, and be proud of it ... 'I want to make the world a better place. I want boys to have a better sense of how to get through things than I do, or I did. And so, I'm helping with this project so that that happens.' But I had to prove to them that I would listen to them and that they could disagree with me and I wouldn't shut them down."
While extreme cases of bullying have made headlines, Wiseman's book examines how racially charged remarks, incessant teasing and malicious taunts can be a source of discomfort for boys who opt to stay mum rather than speak out.
Wiseman said the fear of humiliation for boys is "huge" — not unlike their desire to be a part of the group. Still, it's critical for them to voice their displeasure if they or others within or outside of their social circles are being targeted.
"It's really important for boys to be able to honour that (by saying): '...This is a problem for me,'" she said. "'It's going to affect me in that I'm not going to speak out when I see bad things happening because I feel I'm so conditioned to say nothing when somebody's doing something mean.'"
Wiseman highlights a four-step process called SEAL— Stop and Set It Up, Explain, Affirm and Acknowledge, Lock In (or lock out) — to help individuals channel their anger more effectively, including boys coping with intense feelings of frustration.
"Not every conflict is bullying, and conflict is inevitable. Abuse of power is inevitable," she said. "Do I hate that it happens? Sure. But it's going to happen. So we have to be able to manage ourselves and to be able to speak truth to power.
"SEAL is a way to understand yourself and also be able to manage yourself so you have the best chance of speaking your truth, knowing what that truth is and having the best chance of being taken seriously; and then, being able to anticipate the things that people say that undermine you."
Wiseman said parents need to strike a delicate balance between showing empathy and asserting their beliefs to boys on key issues.
"There's a difference between lecturing about what you should do and declaring a value statement: 'This is what I believe. This is what I believe about the way in which I should treat people and you should treat people.'
"You can say: 'This is the experience that I had when I was your age.' But you also need to say: 'I also do understand that your life is different. You're different than me. You have different ways of dealing with situations. And the world is a more complicated place than when I was going through this. So maybe this will be helpful to you, maybe it won't be.' When you put it in that kind of context, boys are going to listen to you."
Wiseman said she's heard so far from adults who say the book has enlightened them as to why boys clam up when bombarded with questions about how their day went.
While well-intentioned parents are seeking to engage their sons, Wiseman writes that their goal is "to make the first few minutes stress-free," leaving the boys "much more likely" to reveal details on their own. Alternatively, she suggested saving such brief recap discussions with boys at night.
Wiseman is candid in the book with revelations of experiences with her own sons, including incidents involving them searching for porn online while she was away from home.
"I don't see why somebody who's supposed to be an expert on children is not going to have challenges themselves with their own children," she said, laughing. "My kids are challenging to the core. They always have been.
"My job is to be able to talk to kids and to be able to figure out (the) best ways to be able to talk to each other," she added. "But that certainly doesn't mean that I don't have my own troubles and challenges and that I don't make mistakes, and that I'm constantly trying to figure out how to be the best mother that I can be."