The Secret Life of Boys
After interviewing hundreds of young men (in addition to being a mother of two sons herself), author Rosalind Wiseman shares her insights into "Boy World."
Often we talk about girls and the complexities of their friendships—I wrote a whole book about them that inspired the movie Mean Girls. But with boys, we usually assume their camaraderie lacks the same intricacies that make them feel pressured and confused. In reality, your son's relationships have similar challenges. What's more, understanding the role he plays within his friendship group is critical. Your insight will help him stay true to himself and create the support system he needs to get through life.
Within any one group, most boys have a three- to five-guy inner circle. Then there are a few more guys they associate with but are not close to. Boys have assured me that these roles can be found in every group, regardless of social status. The boys I interviewed and I came up with the following list to describe these roles: Mastermind, Associate, Bouncer, Entertainer, Fly, Conscience, Punching Bag and Champion.
What's important to know is that the roles emerge when there's conflict in the group. Conflicts don't always mean big arguments. They could be over simple things like where to eat lunch or which movie to see. But they're inevitable. And you will rarely be around to see them—so understanding what happens in these tense moments is key. But it doesn't mean that your son behaves like this all the time, that these boys aren't good friends or that they don't care about one another.
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. Please don't tell your son what role you think he plays. Instead, see if he'll read this excerpt and tell you if he thinks I'm completely wrong, mostly wrong, occasionally have a point or basically know what I'm talking about. Then ask him to explain why he came to that conclusion. And now, the roles.
He's charismatic and naturally good at figuring out people's weaknesses. He decides what's funny, stupid, cool, etc., and has the absolute right to dismiss any opposing viewpoint or opinion. In middle school, he's the kid who decides when the group should get up from the lunch table. In high school, he's excellent at arguing, and he's especially good at arguing with girls and making them feel stupid. Despite what we're calling him, the Mastermind doesn't often look and act as calculating and intelligent as the name might imply, but his ability to influence others is what counts.
- What does the Mastermind gain? Power and control.
- What does he lose? He won't admit it, but he constantly feels the pressure to maintain his position. His relationships are weak because his friends' loyalty is based on fear and power.
- What Mom & Dad should know: He won't take risks that might go against his image. He can't admit to anyone when he's in over his head.
Although Masterminds and Associates can look similar, the Associate is much more talkative and well liked. "He can be honest with the Mastermind without having to worry about getting [beat up]," says Ian, 17. He's interested in other people's business and what advantages he and the Mastermind can get from it.
- What does the Associate gain? Power by association.
- What does he lose? Any identity separate from the Mastermind.
- What Mom & Dad should know: When you're a parent who is so proud of your son for his achievements and how well he fits in, it can be easy to forget how much harder it may be for him to develop into the man of honor and moral courage you want him to be.
He's big, tall, intimidating and willing to sacrifice himself as one of his job responsibilities. He isn't good at verbally defending himself and can't read or understand people's motivations. He can be rude to guys who are outside his group, and he'll say stupid, perverted things to girls because the Mastermind or Associate tells him to. He's often the odd man out in situations with girls, or the guys set him up with someone who is similarly socially vulnerable.
When there's tension in the group, the Entertainer diffuses it. He's willing to make fun of himself and do awkward things to refocus the attention. He loves debating but never takes it seriously. He responds to the bragging and aggression of other members of his group by bragging himself in ways that are clearly absurd. He's good at making people feel comfortable. His use of humor allows him to be more secure and forgiving.
The Conscience worries about getting caught and the consequences. Depending on how vocal he is, the other guys can find the Conscience annoying because he's like having a chaperone. If they have a lot of history with him, they'll put up with it. Because he wants to follow the rules, he's much more likely to always do his schoolwork and take care of his responsibilities, which leaves him vulnerable to both sharing his work with his friends and doing work for them, then being ridiculed for having done his work in the first place. Sometimes he'll get tired of his nice-guy reputation and do something to prove he's not so innocent.
The Punching Bag
In almost every group of guys, there's one guy who the others love but relentlessly ridicule. It's like when someone says, "No one beats up my little brother but me." If someone outside the group goes after the Punching Bag, the other guys will defend him to the death. Whoever he dates, his friends will harass him for it.
The Fly is the kid who hovers outside the group. He doesn't understand how annoying he is. If his parents have money, he'll try to build his friendships by bragging or buying. Guys can tolerate a Fly for a while, but usually the frustration builds and at some point the other guys have had enough and lash out. There's no guilt when excluding him because he's seen as bringing it on himself.
He isn't controlled by these Boy World categories but has enough of its positive characteristics that people respect him. People like him. He can take criticism, doesn't make people choose friends and doesn't blow off someone for a better offer. When people are harassed or demeaned, he intervenes. He's comfortable hanging out with guys who are both inside and outside the Act Like a Man ideal. He holds his own opinion, but still listens to others.
You may not like the role your son fits into, but remember boys' roles aren't life sentences. Masterminds can realize the price of their arrogance and Punching Bags can learn to stand up to their friends. However, feelings of power, disempowerment and struggling with friendships are universal. There will always be a group that has the trappings of power. There will always be people in the middle. Outliers will have moments when they should confront people who have more power. All boys will have moments when they see someone being trapped in the Act Like a Man box or punished for not conforming to it, but not know what to do. The trick is to open up healthy lines of communication with your son so that he knows he can come to you for help handling any situation.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Want to know more about Masterminds and Wingmen? Go to familycircle.com/masterminds to find out when we're having a live Facebook chat with Rosalind this month and to enter to win a copy of her book.
- What does the Bouncer gain? He has social status and power in a way he never would have without the Mastermind and Associate.
- What does he lose? Respect and the ability to have healthy relationships.
- What Mom & Dad should know: The Mastermind, Associate and Bouncer have little or no respect for female authority figures or men outside the Act Like a Man ideal. Plus, the Mastermind and the Associate can easily convince the Bouncer to get in trouble or take the fall for them because he's always eager to show his loyalty to them.
- What does the Entertainer gain? A sense of inclusion, belonging and security in the group because he's funny. He has membership in the group but doesn't have to act like a jerk or feel desperate to be in.
- What does he lose? He always has to keep up the act to feel valuable in the group.
- What Mom & Dad should know: He has trouble being taken seriously.
- What does the Conscience gain? Considered a "nice" guy by teachers, administrators and parents, he has that extra layer of trust other guys might not.
- What does he lose? Considered a "nice" guy by the other boys. Sometimes the group excludes him. Guys in the group will leave him out of certain things because he'll point out when they're doing something mean, stupid or dangerous. He's at risk of being seen as a snitch, which can hurt his friendships.
- What Mom & Dad should know: Because he's trustworthy, he is used as a smokescreen when dealing with parents and authority figures. As when he says, sincerely, "I'm so sorry, officer. I know my friends were really loud. We'll keep the music down, I promise. No, sir, I haven't had any alcohol."
- What does the Punching Bag gain? Not a lot. He has friends, but the price is high.
- What does he lose? He can feel he has no choice but to accept his friends' behavior.
- What Mom & Dad should know: He doesn't like being treated this way, but believes he has to put up with it to keep his friends.
- What does the Fly gain? Nothing.
- What does he lose? A lot.
- What Mom & Dad should know: "Parents just don't or can't see that their kid is the Fly," says Chris, 15. "They keep buying more things so other kids will like him. We don't like him. We use him. Parents can't see the difference."
- What does the Champion gain? People genuinely like him and respect him.
- What does he lose? People will sometimes turn on him for doing the right thing or not upholding the Act Like a Man ideal. It can be lonely.
- What Mom & Dad should know: Champions are rare and, contrary to your instinct, your son probably isn't in this category. "I'm not sure you should put the Champion stuff in [your book] for the parents because as soon as they read it, they're going to think their son is one," Calvin, 15, wrote to me. "How are we going to convince them that they're probably wrong?"