Ep 87: Combatting the Drama of High School

Episode Summary

Rosalind Wiseman, author of the classic Queen Bees and Wannabees (the inspiration for the hit film Mean Girls) and four other books, shares her knowledge from over two decades of working with teens and schools. From what dads-with-daughters have to deal with now to where to draw the line on offensive language between mom-and-son, Rosalind has a wealth of insights!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

In many ways, high school is something that takes place behind closed doors. Even though many  teenagers seem young and naïve to many parents, they’re having their first experiences with drugs, alcohol, sex, and other serious topics both inside and outside of class, and their choices have major consequences. Not to mention, teenagers are often dealing with a cutthroat social jungle packed with drama! All these stressors add up quickly, and teens might make irrational, possibly dangerous or harmful decisions.

This world—the world of high school—is a hard one for parents to keep up with, especially when their teens don’t want to be open and honest about their experiences. Still, parents absolutely need to be a positive presence in their teens lives to help navigate these wild situations. But when teens are reluctant to share their experiences, how can parents possibly know how to act?

For more about teenage social spheres and what parents can do to help, I talked with Rosalind Wiseman, author of multiple parenting books including Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the new Realities of Girl World, the basis for the hit movie Mean Girls. (This means Wiseman is literally the woman that made “fetch” happen!) Aside from this feat alone, Wiseman has worked with teens for decades, and her books are all written with the guidance of actual teenagers and are screened by teen readers, making them some of the most spot-on books on the market, such as her second NYT best-seller, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Rosalind is no stranger to working with parents, schools, and teenagers themselves to work through some of the most challenging moments in teens’ lives.

According to Wiseman, one of the most crucial parts of helping teens navigate high school is to instill an understanding of how they should be treated and how they should treat others—something parents need to foster. Teens need to know their essential worth as a person and use this knowledge to guide their friendships, relationships, and important choices. For example, what are they looking for from their friends? Do they cherish trust? Loyalty? Acceptance? Teens need to know what their values are, what they look like, and know how to stand up for themselves when they’re being violated. They’re are going to make these decisions for themselves, but Wiseman explains to listeners exactly why instilling this kind of resolve is one of the best things a parent can do, as well as how to do it.

In addition, Wiseman covers everything from breaking down cliques to creating a family “Bill of Rights,” rattling off insights and strategies for parents like the expert she is. Over the course of our interview, we cover:

  • Identifying teenage roles in friend groups
  • Getting teens to help themselves with self-help books
  • “Reconnaissance strategies” and the importance of teen privacy
  • The reality of nude photos and sexting
  • Shifting elements of teenage drug culture

Wiseman’s work has had an incredible impact on the world of parenting, teaching, and even pop culture, and having her as a guest on this week’s podcast was an absolute privilege. Whether or not you’re the parent of a high schooler, listen in for all of her amazing tips!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen lists their ‘must haves’ in a friend, get them to go deeper than descriptive words:

“What does that look like to you in 3rd grade, 7th grade, 10th grade, as a senior?”“What does that look like to you in 3rd grade, 7th grade, 10th grade, as a senior?”

-Rosalind Wiseman

2. Check in to see if your word choices bother your teen:

(Members Only)

3.  Get a conversation going by sharing something you read:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Bill of Rights with Friends & Romantic Partners

By this point, if you’ve been following along with us, you probably have already instituted an agreement within your family on how to treat each other–a family “Bill of Rights.” But as Rosalind Wiseman points out, having a Bill of Rights for friendships and intimate relationships is just as important. With your teen, maybe at breakfast together, outline a Bill of Rights for friendships. What kind of treatment can friends expect? What sort of values are most important in maintaining a friendship? You can do this with your teen and come up with your own important values for your adult friendships.
After a bit of discussion, choose three values that are most important within a friendship. You and your teen should write them down either on a piece of paper or in a notes app. For each value, also jot down (and discuss) what that value would look like in action. For example if one of the values is “loyalty,” does that mean you lie for a friend if they ask you to? Or does that mean a friend would never put you in that sort of position?
Once you complete this exercise for friends, come up with a Bill of Rights for Romantic Partners in the same way!

2.  Are Your Reading Materials Out of Touch?

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I’d love to talk a little bit about this book which is, as you said, published 19 years ago now, Queen Bees and Wannabes, Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the Other Realities of Adolescence. And actually, in the introduction to this other book of yours, Masterminds and Wingmen, you talk about a situation that happened shortly after the release of this book, Queen Bees, “before it was published, I was profiled in New York Times Magazine article entitled Mean Girls. A few days later, my literary agent asked if I’d like to talk to a woman named Tina Fey, because she was interested in buying the rights to the book.” So that’s cool.

Rosalind: That was cool. That was an unusual moment in my life.

Andy: Wow. Okay, so then that call led to the film Mean Girls.

Rosalind: Yeah, it led to all things in the world Mean Girls. Queen Bee backpacks, fetch the word [inaudible 00:01:11] as a phrase.

Andy: You made fetch happen.

Rosalind: Right, mm-hmm (affirmative). The language changed a little bit after that.

Andy: Interesting. So this is really rich. There’s so much going on in this book, but you write in the introduction here that it kind of came out of a program that you created you to work in schools, to go into schools, and work with girls on their friendships and relationships.

Rosalind: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I mean when I first started, and that was a long time ago, this is the only job I’ve ever had, is to work with teenagers. And so I’ve been doing it since I was almost a teenager myself, like when I was 22. And I started actually teaching self-defense to girls, because I felt like violence against people’s body was also against their minds, and it felt really important to me. The issue of self-empowerment for girls, but also for anybody, is about your mind and their body.

Rosalind: And so I did that for a while, and then I started writing curriculum that actually, what is called now, is social emotional learning curriculum. But I didn’t know that at the time. I don’t even know if that was the term we used. And I started doing that, and I started having young people, probably because I was pretty much four or five years older than they were in some cases.

Andy: Right.

Rosalind: Right? They were pretty comfortable telling me what I was doing was wrong or cheesy or just not realistic. So I started creating all this kind of content books and lesson plans, and just everything around what young people needed. And so books came from that, like Queen Bees and Wannabes, or Masterminds for boys. I wrote a book for parents, and today I run a company called Cultures of Dignity that’s all about creating content for young people where young people are the subject matter experts of their lives. And so everything comes from that. Everything I do, everything I write, everything I say, is very much based on what young people tell me.

Andy: And all these books, you run these things by actual teenagers. Both of these, you mentioned, you actually have people read every chapter and tell you, “Oh my gosh, this, no, no, get this out of here,” or “yes, this is right on.” And there’s quotes all throughout the book from actual teenage girls and boys in both cases that are illuminating.

Andy: So can we dive in to one of the first things that I love, by the way, throughout these books, you have little landmines, things to watch out for as a parent. And they’re really insightful, and they have warning, watch out. And so one of the first ones in this book is the word cliques, that girls can’t stand the word cliques, and will immediately get defensive if you use this to describe their group of friends. So how can you talk to teenage girls about cliques without actually talking about cliques?

Rosalind: Well you can talk to them about cliques, first of all, you can’t say that word, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Rosalind: Because the word’s annoying, and the word comes across as if you’re in middle school and you’re doing something mean. It seems like it demeans the relationships to say it’s a clique of girls, because we tend to superficialized girls friendships and experiences. And so it’s really important that we can say the words and we can describe their experiences without using the words that irritate them. It’s not all girls feel this way, but I think that, for example, that you can say to the daughter in your life, “I use this word cliques, and does that annoying you in any way? Because if it does, I’d really like to know, because I actually don’t want to annoy you.” It’s sort of inevitable that you’re going to annoy them, but you [crosstalk 00:05:03].

Andy: I’d love to minimize it as much as possible, at least.

Rosalind: And also there’s some things that you might say that annoys them, but you actually have very good reason for saying that. So you need the best sort of percentage of them listening to you, and so using words that irritate them make it less likely. Because you are going to say things that irritate the children, and really sometimes that’s actually incredibly necessary. So you just want to be careful, choose your battles about what’s irritating.

Andy: So cliques, maybe avoid that, maybe have a conversation about it. Then you actually, in this book, in both of these books, you break down all of the different roles that teenagers can occupy within this kind of standard social groups. And you give them all names, and show how they’re interconnected in different ways. And it’s really insightful. You have these terms, queen bee and sidekick, but of course we’re not supposed to use these words when we talk to our daughter about this stuff. So what should we know about these roles, and how we could talk about them in a way that won’t get the eye roll?

Rosalind: Yeah, and also I think what’s important is that labeling is a pro, and it’s a con. So lots of, for example, there are a lot of people who voluntarily put labels on themselves and, they’re identifiers. Like, this is what identifies me, and then you’re choosing that. So what I did with labels is I’ve wanted young people to be able to see their behavior, for better and for worse, because once you can put words to it, then you can see, well, do I want to actually show up this way?

Rosalind: So I have the term for the girls called the banker, which is somebody who collects information that’s going on in the group, and then they hold it until very strategic times and then they dispense information that makes other girls really anxious. And by the way, there can be boy bankers too. And you can do things, and do them as a pattern, but not realize that you’re doing them, or not put words to them. And that’s important if you want to have some self awareness about what the consequences are to your life, for better and for worse.

Rosalind: And so the labels are a way to have more awareness about your own behavior, and also to be able to let go of some behavior that you’re like, why am I doing this? This isn’t right. Why am I doing this? So it’s really important to do that. The thing that I didn’t want to do, didn’t want to happen, but it did happen, especially with the girls, not so much with the boys, is that people used it as a way to say, “Oh, I know, that girl’s a queen bee” or “that girl’s a [crosstalk 00:07:41].

Rosalind: And that was actually opposite of what my intention was because I wanted adults to be able to get some self awareness about their own behavior, by the way, because this stuff doesn’t stop when you’re in high school, and be able to let it go. And so one of the things that’s been hard, always, about that part of my work is being able to say to parents, do not do this and start labeling all the girls that you know.

Andy: Oh so that friend, she’s this, that friend, she’s this, that, yeah right, right.

Rosalind: Right, it’s because the other part of this is that your daughter might be friends with a girl who’s 90% horrible, right? 95% horrible. But the 5% could be really important. And your daughter knows that, or maybe your daughter knows why the other girl is 90% horrible, and she’s not going to tell you why, because if you do, then you’re going to have opinions about your daughter hanging out with this girl.

Andy: Going to be judgment, right.

Rosalind: Right, exactly. The judgments are really intense, and boys and girls are really sensitized and sensitive, rightfully so, to adults judging their friends or judging them. So the labels thing, both boys and for girls, it’s really helpful when they read it, actually. So I still get lots of correspondence from kids saying, I read this and it really helped me understand my social dynamics, my world [inaudible 00:08:57] , and that’s the point. That’s the point, is to be able to give a greater understanding so that you can have more autonomy and more self agency in these situations, and more self awareness.

Andy: Yeah, it helps you just start to see patterns and sort of distance yourself from it a little bit.

Andy: I did just keep finding myself saying, wow, I wish I would have read this when I was a teenager and known about all of the things that you write about. So I guess, do you recommend giving this book to your teenagers, or just parts of it that you read with them?

Rosalind: Yeah, sure. So the third edition of Queen Bees, which came out in 2016 or ’17, has the chapter in it for younger girls that I wrote so that parents could read it with younger girls, younger meaning like 10 and younger.

Andy: Yeah, prepare them, this is coming down the pike at you.

Rosalind: Exactly. 10 is fifth grade, or grade five, and that’s definitely what happening.

Andy: They’re in the middle of it.

Rosalind: Yeah, so I wanted parents to be able to have something that they could sit with their daughters, and actually what I’ve heard and know is that a lot of parents will buy the book for their daughters and have them read it, and then maybe discuss it with them later. With boys, they don’t want to read a self help book for parents. And so there are two things that I do with boys about that, and one is that I wrote a book with boys, about 140 boys helped me write a companion book for Masterminds and Wingmen called The Guide, and the subtitle is like Managing Douchebags, Recruiting Wingmen, and Attracting Who You Want, I think is the title.

Andy: Wow.

Rosalind: Because the boys, they got to name the title.

Andy: Yeah, that sounds good.

Rosalind: But it’s for boys. I mean the tone is very different, and what we’re talking about in the guide is very different. It’s for boys who are mostly in high school, everything from what happens when you want to quit a team and you don’t want to tell your parents because they’re going to be totally upset with you, so how do you deal with that? What do you do when you have a friend who is going off the rails and trying to drag you down with him? What do you do when you have a racist friend or a friend who thinks that everything is funny and is absolutely terrible? But you like him, or you have a history with him, so you don’t want to just totally leave the relationship, but he’s terrible, so what do you do about that?

Andy: Right.

Rosalind: When you go to a party and you’re dealing with a drunk girl, how do you mitigate that? Or a drunk guy? Because those are two very different entities, right? Dealing with a drunk guy, dealing with a drunk girl, very different.

Andy: Yes, completely different situation.

Rosalind: These are the things you need, as a high school guy, is to know how to handle, because they’re getting into incredibly complex situations. So that’s not in Masterminds and Wingmen, But what I tell parents is, and this is the case with any book or anything about teenagers, is I would say to your child, “I read this thing, I think it might be right. It rang true to me, but I could be wrong, so I’d like for you to read a page or two and you tell me if this person who’s written this thing [crosstalk 00:12:05] completely wrong. Just tell me what you think about it.”

Andy: Smart.

Rosalind: And it’s also true, right? More important than what I think about your child that I’ve never met, is that it’s really about what your child thinks about what I’m saying, and then telling you. And that’s really where the relationship gets strengthened, and that’s where you’re going to find out the stuff you need to know. So experts go on… and really, people like me, we have a sense of things, and we think about it a lot, but we’re not your child.

Andy: Right.

Rosalind: So it’s really about having some kind of exchange with your child about, is this information right? So I tell parents to put the guide, the book for teenagers, I just tell them to put it on their bed and walk away. Don’t talk about it. Do not talk to them, don’t give them weird looks, of like, have you read the book? Nothing. Just put it on the bed and walk away.

Andy: Yeah.

Rosalind: And he’s probably going to read it, and then it’ll come out. You got to be patient, it’ll come it.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Rosalind: And he’ll tell you why it sucked, or he’ll tell you why it didn’t suck. And that’s what you need.

Andy: Yeah, right, right.

Rosalind: It wasn’t so bad. The highest compliment you get from a teenage boy is like, “Hey, actually, that wasn’t that bad.”

Andy: Wow, that is tough to get to that level. Yeah. I like that a lot and yeah, I think it’s a great approach to ask what they think about it, ask for their opinion, because we all love to share our opinion.

Andy: Throughout this book, you have a few different situations where it would be a good idea to create a bill of rights. The first one, on page 56, is your daughter’s bill of rights with you. There was one about having her bill of rights with her friends, which comes up later. And then there’s definitely one about a bill of rights with a boyfriend or someone that she’s dating. Okay, so can we talk a little bit about those, and any other bill of rights you want to throw at me? And how would you go about constructing those with your daughter, and what would be important to consider?

Rosalind: Sure. So I think what can be a little bit tricky is, and I’ve certainly experienced this as a parent, is you want your child to feel a sense of values and principles about how they are to be treated in the world. And that’s really going to come from your family, right? Her experiences, and this is of course the same with your son, is that their first experiences with how they feel that they should be treated and deserved to be treated, with what I would call dignity, with worth, really comes from the family.

Rosalind: And then as an extension of that, it then becomes, how does she, or he, have feelings about how their relationship, their friendships should go? And then that builds onto the relationships that they will build with people that they have intimate relationships with, and in sexual experiences with, by the way, right? Because they need those kinds of rights as they get older, regardless. If they have a sexual interaction with somebody, I don’t care if it’s 30 seconds, 30 minutes, or 30 years, the same kinds of values need to be applied of I am worthy. I have worth, and not worth is not dependent on anything, it’s just essential to who I am. And we learn that, or we don’t learn that, initially in our families.

Rosalind: And so to go back to being able to articulate, it empowers the child in the right way to say, what are the rights that you have in our family? It’s not giving power to children, that they have all the power, they get to set the agenda for everything, or that you end up being their friend instead of their parent. That’s not what you’re doing when you’re saying you have rights, and those rights are based on what we value in this family. And I would say, as I said a few seconds ago, that having dignity and worth, for everyone in the family, is one of the foundational principles.

Rosalind: And so that means, for example, in a family, that you apologize when you’ve hurt someone, or that you learn how to regulate your anger, and that you don’t have the right to lash out at people. Or if you do, because we all have moments, that you learn to take responsibility for that. And so there’s all sorts of things that come from there of one’s essential worth. And then as the child gets older, your child might have friendships that you’re not crazy about, or you might like the kid, I’ve had this experience, you might like the child a lot, I usually like most kids, because I like working with them.

Andy: Sure.

Rosalind: But there are children that my kids have been friends with that are going through a particular difficult phase where they’re making really, really dangerous choices that I’m not crazy about my child being around that.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Rosalind: But that’s life, right? They have to be able to navigate those kinds of relationships. So if you can take away from the actual specific person, because it’s never about the specific person, it’s about a pattern that your child is developing to have healthy relationships or not. Is that if you can say, well, what are your rights in a relationship? What do you have to have? And most kids will say with their friendships, trust, loyalty, and I want to be myself. Well, I would say as a parent, what does that look like to you in third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade, 10th grade? Because those look really different.

Rosalind: So concretely, what does that really look like to you? What does it look like to you to be loyal? Because loyalty can be backing up somebody when they specifically are doing something unethical, or it can be that you speak to that person, that’s the way I would define true loyalty, and say what you’re doing is wrong. So you create those and then you also say, so what are the things that could happen that I would really consider breaking the relationship? I would say, I can’t be in this relationship right now.

Andy: When have the boundaries been crossed?

Rosalind: Right, right. And so you’re doing it before, not in the moment of crisis, or maybe you’re doing it after the crisis when things are a little bit calmer.

Andy: Yeah, right right.

Rosalind: But your child is developing social skills that are coming from them, but you are their guide along the way to help them think it through. You’re not thinking it through for them. So you’re appropriately being the support system that they need as they get older, and they are taking your values and principles and making them to life. And that’s what, when I was doing that so long ago and I still do this in many ways today, is to help young people create those rights and responsibilities for themselves and other people.

Andy: So you actually have them write down a bill of rights on it, so you have a little family meeting or something, or just the two of you, and take them out to breakfast or something and say, hey-

Rosalind: Absolutely. Yeah, breakfast is great. I love the breakfast meetings.

Andy: Something about it. It’s nonthreatening, you’re doing something else while you’re… it’s not just a grill session.

Rosalind: Right. Breakfast is only going to last like 45 minutes.

Andy: Yeah, there’s an out at the end, so as fast as I can shove this down my face, we’re out of here.

Rosalind: Right, right. Yeah, I still do that. We have social emotional learning curriculum called Owning Up, for fourth grade through 12th grade, and iterations of that exercise are just one of the foundational things that we do.

About Rosalind Wiseman

Rosalind Wiseman has had only one job since graduating from college: to foster civil dialogue and work with communities to build strength, courage and purpose. To that end, she has authored five books including NYT bestsellers Queen Bees and Wannabees and Masterminds and Wingmen, as well as Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads; The Guide; Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials; and Owning Up.

Additionally, Rosalind is the founder of Cultures of Dignity, an organization that shifts the way communities think about our physical and emotional well-being by working in close partnership with the experts of those communities: young people, educators, policy makers, and business and political leaders. National media outlets regularly depend on Wiseman as the expert on ethical leadership, conflict, media literacy, youth culture, parenting, and bullying prevention. She has been profiled in The New York Times, People, Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and USA Today. Wiseman is a frequent guest on the likes of the Today Show, CNN, and NPR affiliates throughout the country.

Wiseman has spoken to audiences throughout the US and abroad: South by Southwest, Microsoft, The Royal Society for the Arts, the Association for the Advancement of International Education, the American School Counselors Association, the Game Developers Conference, the American Association of School Administrators, at the White House many times and numerous schools, governments, organizations, and corporations throughout the US and abroad.

Rosalind lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two sons.

Want More Rosalind Wiseman?

You can find Rosalind on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.