While there are parents who eagerly attend Back-to-School Night, most parents admitted to having some degree of anxiety about it. What's behind this discomfort? You've probably already intuited part of the answer: You feel like you're back in middle school. It's clear who's at the top of the social ladder, who's not, and who's waiting to climb up from the lower rungs. You probably have one of two reactions to the scene: You want to be part of it, you hope highly placed, or you want to have nothing to do with it.
Everyone wants to belong somewhere. There's nothing weak or pathological about it--it's a universal drive. It's just that our true character (individually and collectively) is revealed in the moments when that belonging comes at the cost of what we believe in and what we know is right, whether we're thirteen, thirty-three, fifty-three, or seventy-three. To my mind, becoming an adult is the process of understanding and holding on to our sense of self in the face of this drive, because belonging often comes at the cost of the values we stand for.
What groups do we want to belong to? Do those groups accept us? Why or why not? How do we decide where we want to belong? How do boys and girls, men and women attain and maintain respect in their community and in our culture? In turn, how is a social pecking order established through this process?
Writing this book has made me realize that there are many adults who feel just as trapped by the groups they are in, if not more so, than the teens with whom I work. Most parents become friends with other parents beginning in their children's play groups and then continue on through their car pools, athletic teams, and religious youth groups. To be sure, many people develop lifelong friends with people they've met through their children. But there are a lot of parents who are wondering how they became friends with these people and who can't wait for their kids to graduate so they and the other parents can quietly go their separate ways. Why? We chose to be with them on the assumption that we have similar values and because we've gone through similar experiences or rites of passage. But as we pass through parenting's rites of passage, it's easy to confuse partners in arms in a given situation or phase with people with whom we truly want to go through life and can depend on.
How do we know what we're looking for in each other? Let's start by looking at two definitions of culture: the one in Webster's dictionary and my own.
Webster's definition: The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.
My definition: Everything we "know" about the way the world works but have never been taught.
Our culture makes us feel that we have to be and look a certain way so that we belong--regardless of whether we are poor, wealthy, or anywhere in between. It convinces us that we are "less than" unless we participate in the relentless struggle to keep up with or have more than our neighbors. But our culture is not a thing that happens to us. We are the ones who create and sustain it. If cultural values are handed down through generations, it's because we absorb them and act on them without question. Often we don't even realize the degree to which we're constantly pressuring each other to conform to cultural norms. Primed by these powerful cultural messages--in magazines, on television, in movies, in supermarket conversations, from our own parents--we can trick ourselves into believing that there's just one party to go to, one group to belong to, and that if we don't get in and stay in, we don't measure up or risk being thrown out.
Excerpted from Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads by Rosalind Wiseman with Elizabeth Rapoport Copyright © 2006 by Rosalind Wiseman. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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