On February 24, 2015, author and media commentator Rosalind Wiseman spoke in Piedmont about the social and emotional lives of boys and girls. She spoke with approximately 200 7th graders at an afternoon assembly in the PMS MPR, and then addressed a packed crowd of parents and community members in an evening program at Alan Harvey Theater. These programs were part of the Education speaker Series, now in its third year.
Wiseman is nationally known for her work on social and emotional development, bullying, ethical leadership, social media, and media literacy. She is the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World—the best-selling book that was the basis for the movie Mean Girls. Her latest book, Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World was published in September 2013. Ms. Wiseman’s other publications address the social hierarchies and conflicts among parents. She is the author of a young adult novel, Boys, Girls & Other Hazardous Materials, and social justice curriculum for middle and high school.
Wiseman describes her goal as working to change the way we think about children and teens’ emotional and physical well-being. She was a principal speaker at the White House Summit on Bullying. She is a consultant for Cartoon Network’s Speak Up, Stop Bullying Campaign and an advisor to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. She consults with video game designers on gender depictions, writes a monthly column for Family Circle magazine, and is a regular contributor to several parenting blogs and websites.
Wiseman opened both the afternoon and evening programs by showing a brief recording made by a father who heard his four-year-old son talking to himself behind the closed door of a bathroom. The boy was talking about how he overate and as a result had an upset stomach, and his candor drew immediate laughter from the crowd. Wiseman then posed the serious question: How do kids go from being like this four-year-old, who is comfortable talking with no filters about what is going on inside his body and his mind, to being a teenager, who might walk around with serious problems but is reluctant to share the problems or confide in anyone? Some young children go from an ease in sharing everything to an unease as a teenager about sharing anything.
Wiseman observed that middle schoolers are good at looking fine on the outside when they are feeling bad or sad or confused on the inside. She said a reality of this stage of life is that conflict with peers is inevitable. Also, it is inevitable that teenagers will have some experience involving abuse of power — bullying. Kids don’t know how to deal with these challenges. Sometimes they join in the bullying and convince themselves it is OK to do that.
Wiseman said that adults need to be realistic when thinking about, and speaking with teens about, teenage social issues. In middle school, students are often confronted with social and emotional issues that are complicated. Platitudes that may work with young children are useless for teenagers. Wiseman said that the way some adults talk about bullying with 7th graders can be ridiculous because it is too black and white. Wiseman observed that it is rarely the case that one person is completely in the right and the other person is completely in the wrong.
Wiseman listed some common teenage dilemmas:
- What do you do if a friend is annoying you and you don’t want to be mean?
- What if a friend is being mean to you but does not admit it, or says you’re too sensitive?
- How do you deal with a fake apology?
- What if two friends are in a fight and one asks you to choose sides?
- Why tell someone that you’re mad if that person is just going to turn around and ridicule you to others?
- What if you want to tell a parent about a problem but you know your parent will freak out?
Wiseman emphasized that not every teen social conflict is bullying. Bullying is using power to strip another person of dignity and worth, demeaning that person because of who he is, where he comes from, his sexual orientation, his wealth. Bullying is about bigotry. Wiseman also distinguished between different types of teasing. “Bonding teasing” makes you feel liked and included. “Annoying teasing” makes you feel stupid or irritated. “Malicious teasing” is targeted at a person’s insecurities.
Wiseman shared a true story about a girl whose close friend stole her phone and used the phone to send embarrassing texts to a boy. Despite this, the girl really wanted to continue the friendship, even though the friend was cruel to her and humiliated her. This is one example of the kinds of complex social problems middle schoolers may face.
Wiseman talked about strategies to act with dignity and gain a sense of control in these kinds of difficult situations. She said the key is to have control over your own emotions, so others cannot manipulate you. She explained that the limbic part of the brain is the part that will “freak out.” In adults, the prefrontal cortex typically controls this raw emotional reaction. In teens, the prefrontal cortex may not be fully developed to control the powerful limbic reaction, so kids may feel overwhelmed by their emotions.
When kids are little, parents typically tell them to talk about their feelings. But this advice has to be updated for teenagers. Wiseman analogized to protagonists in combat in popular video games, who ask themselves: “What are my strengths and weaknesses? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my opponent? Where is my dragon and what are my dragon’s powers?” Wiseman explained that no one plays a game thinking he will win 100% of the time. Instead, you play, you make mistakes, you learn, you level up. She advised that kids should think about social conflict in the same strategic way they play video games: at some point you have to pick a battle; choose the time to make sure you have most resources and strategic advantage; give yourself the best chance to express your points so others understand; and move on.
Wiseman describes her approach to conflict as “SEAL: Stop, Explain, Affirm, Lock.”
She emphasized that although you can’t control how anyone else will react or behave, you can engage on your own terms, say what you mean, and then move on. “Moving on” means either the conflict is truly resolved, or you “take a vacation” from the friendship for a little while, or you “lock out” if there is no realistic chance of resolution.
Wiseman also talked about how boys are bombarded with messages about body image and gender roles, but that boys don’t yet have a language to talk about how these messages affect them. She showed images of the original batman and the current-day, overly-muscled batman to illustrate the messages boys are receiving about their bodies. She showed images of men from video games to show the limited range of male emotion (withdrawn or angry only) typically depicted in popular culture. She said parents should talk with boys about these unrealistic and harmful depictions and messages in the same way we talk with girls about hyper-sexualized and severely skinny depictions of girls and women.
During the assembly, students asked questions and offered comments about these issues. One student said he enjoys playing a video combat game, but would like the game much more if the female characters were to wear the same kind of armor and battle gear that the male characters wear, rather than the combat equivalent of bikinis. The crowded MPR erupted in applause. Another student complained about the highly sexualized ads that continually pop up when she plays a trivia game that is popular with younger kids.
Wiseman said she wished the video game designers she consults with could have heard these comment and the enthusiastic applause in support. She told the crowd of 7th graders that they are right to think critically about the gender images fed to them by the media, and to speak up about this. Wiseman said everyone should be treated with dignity, and students should reject the sexist, racist, and unrealistic messages targeted at them.
Wiseman’s programs were presented by the Education Speaker Series, which offers a variety of speakers and topics relating to raising healthy children and young adults. Whenever possible, the speakers conduct either a student assembly or a professional development program for educators in addition to a parent education program. The next program in this year’s Series will be on Tuesday, March 24 at the PHS Student Center, when Abby Medcalf PhD discussed Effects of Marijuana on the Developing Brain.