The New Rules of Boy World

Masterminds WingmenWhen I found out I was having a baby boy, I remember having very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was disappointed. No ribbons, no ballet tutus, no matching outfits… On the other hand, I was relieved. There would be none of that drama that seems to surround girls through preschool and even into adulthood: the friendship rollercoasters, the body issues, the heartache of young romance! Boys, are so much easier, I reasoned. As rambunctious and ornery as boys can be, they’re just, well—“simpler” than girls are. Right?

But maybe boys aren’t really as simple as we’d like to believe. This is the topic of Rosalind Wiseman’s latest book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Wiseman had delved into the secret world of girls in her book Queen Bees and Wannabes (which was the basis of the film Mean Girls). Having only sons herself, she felt it was now time for us to explore Boy World. In Masterminds and Wingmen, she reveals the secret social structures that boys today live by, in the hopes that parents and educators can better guide them through childhood and adolescence in a society that is growing increasingly difficult to navigate.

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Our Boys Might Be Struggling

Early in the book, Wiseman writes:

“We assume boys are easy because they keep quiet, and in the process we sentence them to a lifetime of being misunderstood. If we don’t recognize and appreciate the challenges they’re facing, no matter how much we love them and want to help them, they won’t see [their parents] as a resource.”

Wiseman then lists some alarming statistics that seem to indicate that our boys really are struggling. More boys than girls are diagnosed with learning disabilities, commit suicide, and end up in correctional facilities. 70% of high school valedictorians are now female, and according to Wiseman’s research, for every 8 qualified female college applicants, there are only two qualified male applicants.

As a mother of a boy, this really did astound me. Weren’t males always at the bigger advantage? Weren’t males always given bigger breaks than females? If our society truly is experiencing a shift, maybe we do need to pay closer attention to what our boys are doing, instead of falling back on the dismissive “Boys will be boys” attitude of the past.

Breaking Down the Boys’ Club

Wiseman contends that a major key to understanding our boys’ experience is to recognize what role he plays within his own social group. Within any one group, most boys have an inner circle of about 3 to 5 guys, with maybe more guys on the periphery that he’s not as close with. Consulting with 160 young male contributors from all ages, Wiseman was able to narrow down the roles to the following eight. The boys she spoke with assured her that these roles could be found within every group, regardless of social status.

The Seven Roles Found in Any Given Guy Group

  1. The Mastermind: He’s the leader of the pack and decides for the whole group what’s cool and what’s not. The Mastermind isn’t necessarily the smartest or the best-looking, but he’s definitely the most influential. He has the most power and control in the group, but he also has the most to lose. Once he achieves the position of “Mastermind,” he’ll feel pressure to maintain it, so he might not take the risks that go against his image.
  2. The Associate: The Associate might look like the Mastermind, because he can speak frankly with the Mastermind without fear of retaliation, but he’s not the one in charge. He gets his power by associating with the Mastermind. He is often more personable. He does fear losing his place in the pack, though, so he maintains it by being buds with Mastermind. This fear may keep him from breaking away and being his own person.
  3. The Bouncer: Like the Associate, he gains his power by being on good terms with the Mastermind. He’s the muscle of the group and adds an extra layer of physical intimidation. He’s willing to get in trouble for the Mastermind and the Associate. He thinks that if he doesn’t, he may lose their favor.
  4. The Entertainer: The Entertainer serves as the group’s comic relief. His humor is his easy ticket into the group. He may feel like he always has to be “on” to keep his position, and he may have trouble being taken seriously by teachers and peers because of his antics.
  5. The Conscience: The Conscience is the worrier of the group. He’s always thinking about the consequences, and the other guys can find that annoying and make fun of him for it. Because he’s a rule follower, he’s usually good about doing his schoolwork, and as a result, the others can take advantage of him by getting him to do their work. He’s often looked upon by others as “trustworthy,” and the others may use him for that too (as in, “hold these cigarettes for me—they’ll never look in your locker.”). At times, the others can shut him out because he’ll point out when he thinks something is not a good idea.
  6. The Punching Bag: This guy is relentlessly teased within his own group. They’ll protect him from outsiders, but within the group he’s fair game. He doesn’t really like being treated this way, but feels like he has to put up with it to keep his friends.
  7. The Fly: The Fly is the boy who is desperate to get into the group, so he buzzes around even as  the group shuts him out. He’ll try to impress by bragging or buying things he thinks the group will think are cool. He’s often used for his stuff, but is never really let inside the group.
  8. The Champion: The Champion rises above these other roles, and is able to be his own person without fear of retribution from other members of his group or other groups. He stands up for people when he thinks it’s appropriate. He is well liked by peers and authority figures.  People naturally like and respect him. This Champion can threaten other boys, though, especially Masterminds, so he has to be strong enough to hold his own.

Do you see your son in any of these roles? Do you think your son is the Champion? Wiseman writes, “Champions are rare and, contrary to your instinct, your son probably isn’t in this category.” Even her young male contributors were wary of our inclination to label our sons as Champions. One of them told her, “I’m not sure you should put the Champion stuff in for the parents because as soon as they read it, they’re going to think that their son is one. How are we going to convince them that they’re probably wrong?”

The author encourages us to show our sons this list of roles so they can tell us how accurate the list is, and which of these roles they see themselves as. She warns us not to share which role we see our sons in either. I shared this list with my husband and then with my ten-year-old son.

Both agreed with the author that the roles were more or less accurate. I was able to predict which role my husband saw himself as, but was genuinely surprised to hear which role my son identified with. It was the complete opposite of what I guessed, and this phenomenon is actually consistent to what Wiseman writes in her book:

“Also remember that your son acts differently around his friends than he does around you. What you know about him is not the same as what his friends know. Not better or worse. Just different.”

This was only a very small section of Masterminds and Wingmen. Regardless of how accurate Wiseman is in identifying these roles, talking about them with my husband and my son did start a lively conversation about what it is to be a guy, from a guy’s point of view. And I gained some new insight into how my son sees himself outside of the family. It was a real eye-opener.

All in all, this book is worth a read if you’re raising boys. Wiseman touches on the full gamut of boy issues, from athletics, to bullying, to girlfriends. She uses insights gained from her countless interviews with boys, and continuously asks us readers to reflect upon our own experiences as kids to help us empathize with the boys of today.

Find Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World at Amazon.com or in your local bookstore.

by Pamela Layug Laney

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