By Nora Krug
Monday, November 8, 2010; 8:51 PM
As a high school student at the Maret School in the 1980s, Rosalind Wiseman was "sort of a snit," she admits. She wore pearls, played competitive tennis and hung around with girls she might now categorize as mean. "I was in a relationship with girls who were horrible to me much of the time," she says.
Today, Wiseman, 41, who lives in Mount Pleasant with her husband and two sons, 7 and 9, has devoted herself to counseling girls on, among other things, how to deal with people just like her former self. "That sequence of constantly being put down has had long-lasting effects on me," she says.
Wiseman has turned her own youthful follies, and the self-help moxie she learned earning a black belt in karate, into a cottage industry. She made a name for herself in 2002 with "Queen Bees & Wannabes," the bestseller that was the basis for the film "Mean Girls." (Some of the material for the book came from Wiseman's work teaching empowerment and life skills in schools such as Maret, Georgetown Day, Dunbar High and Suitland High, but she insists the book is not about any one school.)
These days she spends about half of her time advising school systems on a curriculum she developed, called Owning Up, which teaches students to "take responsibility - as perpetrators, bystanders and targets - for unethical behavior." She also writes a monthly advice column for Family Circle, answers a slew of questions by e-mail and on her Facebook page, can be seen on YouTube and on a multi-city speaking tour called Girl World, where she offers girls guidance on speaking up for themselves and their parents tips on managing the consequences.
Next up is a teen-related television show, now in development with the producers of "The Biggest Loser," a movie adaptation of "Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads" and a second young-adult novel now being written, as was the first, with input from real teens.
Wiseman has become something of an Oprah Winfrey for the teen set. Though she doesn't have a degree in psychology, she has a knack for delivering therapy-speak that appeals to a broad audience: She uses just enough sarcasm to appeal to teenagers and just enough gravitas to earn their parents' respect. As one mother-daughter pair said after Wiseman's recent Girl World speech outside Baltimore, "It was so us."
In a phone interview, Wiseman shared some insights about teen life in Washington and beyond. Here are edited excerpts:
What, if any, teen problems do you think are specific to D.C.?
Being very verbal and arguing a lot is an asset in Washington. But what parents have a hard time understanding is that if kids are good at this, that means that when they are about to get in trouble, they will be extraordinarily persuasive with you, too.
At what age should parents start becoming proactive about their children's social behavior?
As soon as your child is involved in social groups: 2, 3, 4. But it's important to not put your child in a box: This child is a queen bee, etc. It's not helpful. Also it means the person can't ever change. Kids don't like being put into boxes, and your kid can act in different ways in different situations.
How do you communicate when your teen is particularly non-communicative?
You have to let your kid have some privacy, but if you see that the kid is isolating him- or herself, you can take the child aside and say something like, "I want to know what is going on with you but respect that you have a right to have your own life. I'm not asking you to bond with me right now. I just want you to know that I care about what you're thinking and going through. If you just want to talk to me, I am interested and just want to hear about it." And then walk away.
What advice can you give parents about realistically managing their children's use of technology?
We have to start with ourselves. We are addicted to it, too. I recognize this as a parent myself. Start with not texting in the car and not being on the cell when you pick them up at school and not texting them all during the day. Make it difficult, not impossible, for them to access their cellphone.
What are some of the best things you can do to make your child's teenage years easier, for yourself and for your kids?
Recognize what pushes your buttons and how the experience you had as a child influences you as a parent. Really focus on where the child is right now rather than where you want him or her to be.
Remind yourself of this: I am not my kid. What might be good for me is not necessarily good for them, what they are interested in, after-school activities and what schools they go to.
How do your children respond to what you do? They tell me that no situation I've dealt with is what they're dealing with right now, even if it's something I've dealt with a million times. When it's my own children, my anxieties get the best of me, just like any other parent.
As an expert, I can deal with complex problems. As a mother it is much, much harder.
Who is harder to work with, teenagers or their parents?
Parents. Parents have a much, much harder time laughing about themselves. Kids will apologize; parents don't.
Do you ever want to be a teenager again?
I like working with them, but no.