Lisa Bloom Isn’t Impressed by Your ’Swagger’
There's a lot to be said for Lisa Bloom, the fiery civil rights attorney, television legal contributor, and best-selling author. A tireless advocate for those victimized, Bloom follows in the footsteps of her iconic mother Gloria Allred in taking on institutions that devalue life.
Her first book, "Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World," was met with glowing reviews in 2011. Only one year later, Bloom has returned with the hard-hitting "Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture."
She took time out of her intensely busy schedule to discuss the new book with EDGE and talk a bit about the challenges facing boys in the 21st century.
EDGE: Congratulations on "Swagger" becoming the top-selling parenting book in the country! What inspired you to write a book dedicated to boys?
LISA BLOOM: Thanks! Last year I wrote my first book, "Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World," all about how tabloid media, reality shows and the beauty industry have such a negative influence on women and girls, and what we can do to push back and reclaim our brains. I have spoken to groups all over the country about this. Afterwards, many parents would ask my thoughts about the problems facing boys.
My reaction was, ignorantly, "What problems?" So many people persisted in this question that I began to look into it. I decided to write an article about it. As I continued to research the latest social science - how boys are medicated, disciplined, suspended and expelled far more often than girls... That the majority of our Hispanic and African-American boys drop out of high school, that four times as many young men are incarcerated today than when I was a kid - I was appalled.
I spoke to parents, teachers, administrators, many boys and young men, and kept researching and writing about what I found. The article turned into the book, "Swagger." I wanted to alert parents about how harsh our country has become towards our boys who falter, and give concrete, practical steps any parent can use to raise smart, successful sons.
EDGE: How do you think the culture of "swagger" became so prevalent?
LISA BLOOM: I call the book "Swagger" because "swagger" is the most common song lyric of the last decade, across all genres: rap, hip hop, even the Jonas Brothers are singing about it! It's also the #1 attitude modeled for boys in movies, TV and games they love. Every boy I spoke to knows all about swagger - but few parents do. Swagger is an attitude of overconfidence, often crossing the line into arrogance.
For example, American kids rank #25 out of 30 developed countries in math. But in one area they are #1: confidence. And the research is clear that overconfident kids do worse in school, have more emotional problems, and are more likely to take dangerous risks, drink and do illegal drugs. In the book, I advocate a return to the lost value of humility. The Bible says, "With humility comes wisdom." And the social science bears that out.
Calling out Justin Bieber
EDGE: You recently called out Justin Bieber for his careless remarks demeaning school and reading. What are some ways parents can make reading a joy for boys who think it isn’t "cool"?
LISA BLOOM: Parents must always model the behavior they want to see in their kids. "Do as I say, not as I do, kid," has never worked, and it still doesn’t. Reading is so critical to your kids’ future it can hardly be overestimated. Parents, you must read for pleasure in front of your kids. Model for them that reading is a pleasure. After dinner, turn off all those toxic screens: TV, computer, video games, "anything with an on/off switch" as they say on planes. Plop down on the sofa with your book, and invite your kid to grab his book and join you. Read the great parts out loud. Groan when you’re called away to do something else. Take family trips to the library or bookstore for author events.
I have a twelve page list of "Books Boys Love" at the end of "Swagger." Connect your boy with books in his area of interest. Your library is bursting with them.
EDGE: Minority males experience illiteracy at a much higher rate than their white counterparts due to socio-economic factors and struggling schools. The consequence are especially dire for African-American males. How can parents and the community help address this problem?
LISA BLOOM: "Dire" is right. In "Swagger" I talk about public school teachers in low income areas who go online to beg for books for their first graders. Shame on us for putting them in that position.
The answers for African-American parents are the same as for all of us: speak out loudly and often about your values; make your home a reading mecca; eliminate the competition (screens) as much as possible in your home; set college expectations early; and all the other rules in my book.
I visited schools in low income areas in New York and California where kids had phenomenal literacy skills. Parents and teachers worked closely together to set high expectations for their kids. It can be done, and is being done, when we make literacy, and numeracy - math literacy. a priority.
EDGE: You quote a disturbing fact most people probably don’t know: More African-American men are imprisoned now than were enslaved at the time of the Civil War. Why is this not talked about?
LISA BLOOM: Probably most people don’t know that, and so many other important facts about what’s going on today. In my research last year, I found that college students could name more Kardashians than wars we are in.
The mass incarceration of our own citizens is a hideous problem. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, and more than any country in human history. Many can’t vote when they get out, so politicians have no reason to care about them. Our incarcerated citizens, 93% are male, come from poor communities who get little attention to begin with.
And we shame them and their families, even after they’re out and have "done their time," by making it next to impossible to get jobs, business licenses, student loans, even food stamps. That’s how punitive we are: not even food stamps. I heard from a young man whose dream of becoming a nurse was blocked by an old marijuana possession conviction. And now he’s unemployed, living on a friend’s couch, depressed and suicidal. Our drug laws are intensely cruel.
Take out the ear buds
EDGE: In mainstream thug culture, the role models sold to males traffic severely in violence, misogyny, and homophobia. How can parents help their children who are exposed to these forces, since eradicating them entirely isn’t an option?
LISA BLOOM: Step One: Take out the earbuds and listen to what you kids is listening to. You are about to be appalled. If you don’t understand the lyrics, Google them and get translations of unknown words on UrbanDictionary.com.
Step Two: Limit his exposure to stuff that’s age-inappropriate. When in doubt, turn it off.
Step Three: Engage him in conversations about this stuff. I have scripts in the book for how to do this. Speak out about your values loudly and often.
EDGE: You’ve been a strong, consistent voice for animal welfare. Talk a little about the effect removing violence from the dinner table can have on boys.
LISA BLOOM: My eleven year old nephew, Tennessee, just went vegetarian because of his compassion for animals. Thankfully, his family is supportive. We must always support our kids’ choices to be kind and caring, even if we choose to live a different way. So much in our culture teaches boys that manhood is defined by cruelty, thuggery, violence, assault, even rape. How fabulous when a kid rejects that.
I’m a lifelong vegetarian and went vegan three years ago. I could write an entire book about how this has changed my life so profoundly. At 50, I’m healthier than most 25 year-olds. I run marathons and climb mountains, waiting for everyone else to catch up. Even better is the connection I feel with animals and the planet, knowing that I boycott the intensely cruel factory farming industry three times a day.
Children naturally love animals. At some point, we drum that out of them, teaching that they "have to" eat meat and just accept the cruelty inherent in that. But it’s a lie. I’m inspired by parents who raise vegetarian or vegan kids, and by the children who make that choice for themselves. They have to wonder, "If everyone else is wrong about eating meat, what else are they wrong about?"
EDGE: What are some of the benefits of having an animal companion in the home?
LISA BLOOM: Children with animals at home have better social skills, are more emotionally stable, are better able to read nonverbal communications, and even have stronger immune systems. And they’re less afraid of dogs as adults.
I can’t imagine my childhood without my dogs, nor my kids’ childhood without theirs. Our rescues are members of the family. If nothing else, they teach us humans the proper way to greet someone at the front door: with a lot of jumping up and down and enthusiastic kissing!
EDGE: One of the most unique elements of "Swagger" is that you personally interviewed adolescent males. What about the boys did you find most surprising?
LISA BLOOM: Their eagerness to talk to me. I thought it would be a challenge to get them to open up. But they talked and talked, until they were pulled away. I thought, "Does no one really talk to them about their lives?" Our boys are far more sensitive than they let on. They are dying for someone to pay attention to them, to hear them out.
EDGE: Many boys grow up with hard-working single moms, as their fathers have left. Are there ways these kids can connect with positive male influences?
LISA BLOOM: Big Brothers of America is a fabulous program. My fiancé has had a "Little Brother" for years, and it’s been a beautiful thing in both their lives. Enlist grandfathers, uncles, cousins. Boys love their moms but emulate their dads. When dads are gone, conscript a good man to be present in his life. Once a week, he can take your son to the park to throw a ball around and talk about life, or take him to the library and encourage a love of reading.
And men reading this - yes, this means you - Boys need you! Today, now! Pick one, and make a lifelong difference. In the book I have tips for how to do this.
EDGE: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with EDGE. A final question: What is the central message you hope people take from ’Swagger’?
LISA BLOOM: My pleasure. As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to raise strong children than repair broken men." We can do this. We must do this. I’m unwilling to write off a generation of boys. I’m unwilling to look at them as feeders for our out-of-control prison system. I refuse to turn my back as they drop out of school and face staggering unemployment rates. They are our boys, and they deserve better. Our job is to get them there.
"Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture" is available here in hardcover, unabridged audiobook, and e-book format.