SOCIETY

Moms we hate

You know the type. The ones who make us all feel incompetent.

KATE FILLION March 13 2006
SOCIETY

Moms we hate

You know the type. The ones who make us all feel incompetent.

KATE FILLION March 13 2006

Moms we hate

SOCIETY

You know the type. The ones who make us all feel incompetent.

KATE FILLION

Parents of school-aged children know all about dumb jocks, perky backstabbers, and name-dropping climbers— and those are just the other parents. One Toronto mother, a successful professional in her 40s, still cringes about her run-ins with a “pack of cruel, ambitious women” at her son’s old primary school. The leader was “the head of the parents’ association, one of those insufferably self-important frosted blond moms with a giant SUV. I’d volunteer to help out and she’d treat me like her frumpy servant.” Her sidekicks were “just poisonous, they’d give you a withering look and say, ‘My husband went to such-and-such expensive private school and I hope that’s where Junior will go. What about you?’ ” After realizing she would never fit in—and didn’t want to—the woman moved her son to another school with a more lowkey reputation. But now she worries: does he have enough friends? Maybe if she left work earlier and got to know more mothers, she could finagle a few more play dates for him?

Welcome to what American author Rosalind Wiseman calls “Perfect Parent World,”

a.k.a. the land of perpetual judgment, where, too frequently, “parents’ actions are dictated by anxiety, insecurity, fear...largely brought on by parents pressuring each other to be perfect or assuming that someone is accusing them of being a bad parent.” With expectations unrealistically high, most parents feel they don’t quite measure up—unless they’re what Wiseman dubs “Tennis-Skirt Moms,” running school committees with an iron fist, or “Throbbing-Vein Dads,” the ones who bluster about lawsuits when their kids get suspended for drinking at the dance. Of course, the in-crowd snubs those lower down on the food chain, like “Invisible Dad,” that mumbling geek who looks like he’s never played hockey or even watched it, or “Boobs-on-Parade Mom,” who is just totally inappropriate.

If it all sounds so, well, high school, that’s because it is, Wiseman and collaborator Elizabeth Rapoport write in Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads, a guide to helping parents cope not just with their own children but the teachers, coaches and other parents “who can make—or break—your child’s fu-

ture.” Parenting is apparently seventh grade all over again, with endless opportunities to relive adolescent insecurities—something Wiseman, 36, knows a lot about.

As the co-founder of Empower, a Washington-based non-profit that focuses on helping kids prevent violence, she has spent most of her professional life counselling teens and demystifying their customs for parents— most notably in the 2002 bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes, which provided a crash course in some of the less pleasant aspects of “Girl World,” where “friends” slander each other via instant messages and wearing the wrong jeans can result in social death.

After the book sparked a media frenzy and became the basis of the hit movie Mean Girls, Wiseman was suddenly Oprah’s favourite girl guru, a role she found dangerously “intoxicating.” “I started getting really anxious: oh my gosh, what’s going on, where is my calling and why am I doing this?” she remembers. “And I just got to the place of thinking, ‘This is all very exciting, but I have to be focused on what my work is.’ At the

time, it was really helping girls—and boys— to speak their truth, and help them understand how the culture is forming and pushing them to make decisions to treat others and themselves in a degrading way.”

And what she began to notice, as she took her message to schools, was “moms behaving just like the nastiest girls in seventh grade.” Yet, unlike their kids, they “had no sense of humour about themselves,” she says. “There’s a lot of incentive for parents to avoid selfreflection because it’s so fraught with the potential for blame and guilt and feeling you’ve done the wrong thing. I’m trying to get them to laugh at themselves a bit, to reflect on their own behaviour without becoming self-righteous.”

The result is a highly practical parenting

Parenting is high school all over again, with endless chances to relive teen insecurities

book peopled with archetypes like “Hovercraft Mom,” who micromanages and overprograms her kids, while “Hip Dad” sucks up to his kids’ friends and lets them party in the basement. “Sound-the-Alarm Mom” is always whinging about something: a new policy, a new teacher, a “disastrous” new curriculum. Pompous “Kingpin Dad” treats teachers like his employees. And everyone, even “Mousy Mom,” speaks in code: “My biggest priority is my kids” really means “I’m a better parent than you are.”

But Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads isn’t just amusing social anthropology. There’s blunt advice, too: having kids fear your anger is a good thing, giving them cellphones is a bad thing, and dad should stop passing the phone to mom when someone calls to discuss something about the kids. And, most important, in many situations kids should not be left to work conflicts out by themselves; they need parents coaching them on handling confrontations, and sometimes doing the confronting themselves.

To wit, the book has actual scripts, a godsend for dads (Wiseman stubbornly insists that men should and will read this book) who feel tonguetied in the moment, then seethe later: what to say to your daughter’s ex-best friend’s parents when she isn’t invited to the birthday party. What to say to the neighbour when you dis-

cover your son has been over there smoking pot—or when you find out the neighbour’s kid has been at your place, having sex.

So Wiseman has two sons, five and three— what kind of mom is she? She bursts into laughter: “I aspire to be the ‘All-Boy Mom’ ” —firm yet flexible, doesn’t freak out when the ball goes through the picture window—“whose sons really respect her. Currently my boys are the sort who throw stuff around the house and are just constantly into trouble. But certainly, I have my Queen Bee moments.”

Yes, she was a Queen Bee in high school. Yet she also had an abusive boyfriend she didn’t know how to leave, and that has in some respects shaped her life. At university, she took women’s studies courses and learned martial arts; after graduating with a degree in political science, she couldn’t find a job, and turned to teaching self-defence classes to teenage girls. She came to believe that, among

other things, girls’ inhumanity to girls left them far more vulnerable to starting and staying in relationships with abusive guys. “I began to realize I could help empower them in the way I’d learned to empower myself.” Today, so empowered that her word is viewed as gospel in some circles, Wiseman acknowledges, “It becomes really easy to think your opinion matters more than anyone else’s.” But she fights self-importance: “I know that entitlement and thinking you live above the law can be so incredibly destructive to you and the people around you. That’s what I grew up with, here in Washington.” So she sends her boys to public school; she contributes a generous percentage of her speaking fees to Empower, where she’s bowed out of a leadership position so that others get a turn; she insisted Elizabeth Rapoport, the editor of her previous book, receive credit on the cover of this one because “it’s what she deserves.” And, she says, she is considering running for political office. Her husband, a documentary filmmaker, is opposed, but she hasn’t given up on the idea. In the meantime, Rosalind Wiseman consoles herself by “looking at my work as political theory: I really love understanding how people make the decisions they make, especially in groups.” And even when those groups include mean girls, all grown up and running the PTA. M