Peer pressure for parents

‘Queen Bees’ author to speak at Bancroft
By Pamela H. Sacks


In her new book, “Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads,” Rosalind Wiseman offers several eye-widening anecdotes.

One of them goes like this:
Setting: a northern all-girls Catholic school. A bunch of junior girls walk into the classroom and pass around photos of themselves drinking at a party. Their teacher confiscates the pictures and gives them to the head of the school. The head of the school meets with the offending girls’ parents individually. One mother responds by demanding to know what proof the school has of her daughter’s misbehavior. The head of the school shows the mother the incriminating photos of her daughter. The mother takes the photos and puts them down her pants and refuses to return them. The police are called, and eventually the girl convinces her mother to give the photos back.
Wiseman has gained considerable fame as the author of the 2002 bestseller “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” in which she helps parents understand and negotiate the world of aggressive teen girl behavior: cliques, bullying and social ostracism. The book was the inspiration for the hit movie “Mean Girls.”
Even 10 years before she wrote “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” Wiseman was providing guidance in how to navigate the sometimes treacherous social world of young people as the founder of the Empower Program, which focuses on preventing bullying and violent behavior.
Over the years, she became keenly aware that parents face their own peer pressure where children are concerned and don’t always know how to react. So Wiseman has focused on the parental issues in “Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads,” offering guidance, support and concrete tips on dealing effectively with other parents, teachers, administrators and coaches.
And the anecdote above? It is mild in comparison to some stories Wiseman has heard. In a telephone interview from her office in Washington, D.C., she said that she did not include the most extreme stories because she is not in the business of shocking people. Rather, she said, she wants to emphasize how important it is to act with dignity and treat others with respect.
And she understands how hard that can be.
“Even the most-crazy parents want to do the best for their kids,” Wiseman said. “The contrast to common-sense parenting usually comes from a good place. It is inevitable as a parent that you will be in conflict with people involved in your child’s life. As a parent, you are hard-wired to react really intensely, which means, sometimes, you can’t think through it clearly, and you miss opportunities to teach your children what you really stand for.”
Wiseman will deliver her message at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Worcester’s Bancroft School. The talk, sponsored by the Women’s Initiative of the United Way of Central Massachusetts, is free and open to the public.
“Adolescent girls are really struggling, whether they are living in the suburbs or here in Worcester,” Kate Myshrall, program coordinator for the 600-member Women’s Initiative, said. “They are dealing with the same issues.”
The Women’s Initiative, which has raised money and introduced programs to help girls, is now underwriting a comprehensive needs assessment in Greater Worcester.
“There is a lack of good local data,” Myshrall said. “We want to make sure we are funding what we really need.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Wiseman said she worries when parents contend that their community is different from others.
“People say, `We’re just so lucky. We have a couple of problems, but we really are a unique community. We really care about each other,’” she said.
She went on to recount an incident at a good suburban school at which she spoke. During an evening meeting, a school board chairman told her about his caring and safe community. Earlier that day, Wiseman had spoken at a student assembly. Afterward, a boy had taken her aside and told her his sister was afraid to come to school. She had received a written death threat.
“And this is a very nice school,” Wiseman said. “It happens all the time. People want to do right by their kids. But it doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen in their communities.”
Sometimes, Wiseman wonders who the mature ones are – teenagers or their parents. The question often comes up when college looms. Children are the ultimate status symbol, she said, and parents can get far too wrapped up in the Ivy League and the idea of sending a son or daughter to a prestige college.
“I tell parents, `You are not going to believe it, but there is no one school that is right for every child,’” she said. What matters is finding the school that is the best fit for each child, Wiseman said.
None of the competitiveness seems to make anyone very happy, she noted. Teenagers often feel as if their parents’ anxiety is akin to insanity. Wiseman recalled participating in a gathering of a consortium of elite private schools in Silicon Valley.
“I looked out into their faces, and I didn’t see a lot of joy,” she said of the parents. “That’s pretty much everywhere.”
Parents too often do not want to believe that their children are capable of bad behavior, and they need to stop being in denial, Wiseman said.
“Your kid can do something and you think, `I think I’m going to die,’” she said. “But you have to get perspective and you have to laugh. When someone tells you something about your kid, you have to understand that there could be a small modicum of truth. At the same time, you have to find joy in the fact that you are a parent. There are so many things that will suck the joy right out of it.”
Wiseman, who is 37, has been honing her professional skills for 15 years. She majored in political science at Occidental College in California, and she finds her study of group dynamics has proved useful. But her deep-seated commitment to helping children and parents stems in part from having been in an abusive relationship in high school.
“I never thought I had the market cornered on that experience,” Wiseman said. “It went on for many years. I had to figure out how to get out of it and understand why I got into it, so it wouldn’t happen again.
“We all struggle with violence, degradation and humiliation,” she added. “They are not exclusive to at-risk communities.”
Wiseman and her husband, James Edwards, a documentary producer, have two sons, Elijah, 6, and Roane, 4. She readily acknowledges that she does not always do the right thing with her children.
She recalled that her older child was assigned to a teacher she didn’t like. She complained. The vice principal asked her to give it a week. “It turned out my kid loved this teacher,” she said.
“It’s very hard to not see your children through your own lens,” Wiseman reflected. “I have the same challenges as other parents do. It’s very humbling.”