The Secret Language of Boys and How to Reconnect

by: Sara on 04/17/2018
Posted in: Activism

Today's post is an insightful interview with Adam J. Cox, Phd, author of the just released book Cracking the Boy Code: How to Understand and Talk with Boys. Drawing on decades of experience garnered through thousands of hours of therapy with boys,Cracking the Boy Code explains how the key to communicating with boys is understanding their universal psychological needs and using specific, straightforward communication techniques.

My own son thinks I talk too much and will actually say “Ok stop talking now please”. I am trying to curb my personal tendency to over communicate. What are some of the common mistakes you see parents make when trying to get their sons to open up?

Adam Cox Photo (768x1024)

Author Adam J. Cox, PHD

Over-talking and especially over- explaining are common pitfalls. It takes most boys more time than most expect to process a sequence of thoughts or directives. If the communication is too fast they become stressed by an inability to mentally keep up. Much of Cracking the Boy Code is focused on managing the tone of communication, and pace is a critical element of tone. It’s better to prioritize things that you want to say, remembering to speak slowly and pause, and to occasionally reinforce critical bits of information – without a worried, nagging tone. Try to be more matter-of-fact, using what I describe as task-tone if you have a request. Use short sentences if you have a question or comment. When we as parents express a range of thoughts in rapid succession (and let’s face it, sometimes we “bark” these ideas), the net effect is an atmosphere of anxiety. Even if you’ve had a lot on your mind and feel as though there’s a lot you need to say to your son, it’s better to spread those ideas out over time. As a rule of thumb, boys rarely “open-up” in the way that many mothers want them to. But they do share bits and pieces that are important windows into their thinking. Learn to manage tone, and you will make it much easier and more comfortable to share the essentials.

I am finding that what I perceive as a lack of motivation is in actual fact a lack of interest. Most traditional schooling tends to focus on listening and repeating and doesn’t offer students the chance to learn applicable skills, which you state, is very important to a boy’s sense of self. What suggestions do you have to help fill this gap?

This question addresses the importance of authenticity in boys’ lives. Everyone wants to see young people have a sense of momentum. We want to observe that boys are fully engaged in their lives, exploring new things, taking appropriate chances, and steadily learning more about who they are. Yet it’s a bit unrealistic to expect boys to adopt this attitude if most of the time we, as parents, are fraught with anxiety about school grades, compliance with rules, and all sorts of nitpicking about small personal decisions.

 Most parents would like their sons to have more diverse interests. Specifically, they would like boys to unplug and to look around to see what other sorts of activities might be worth trying. If we want boys to connect with these options, we must provide a practical path for that exploration. This means time, available supervision, and necessary resources for “purposeful work.” I don’t believe that all boys prefer electronic games to any other activity, but I do believe that electronic games have become the default for the great majority because they are easy to become immersed in, and they keep a boy’s attention locked in. It takes substantial family and community effort to initiate other kinds of activities, but families should push back against electronica.

It’s also easy to be overwhelmed by the demands of school, which may have little to do with boys’ personal interests. However, families that establish a serious tone in talking about other activities make it more possible to think about complementary activities. It works best to make suggestions to which boys can react. Sometimes, it’s more important to begin, than to spend weeks and months searching for the perfect option. The latter approach may unintendedly reinforce self-absorption.

It is only by doing that boys discover who they truly are. Tragically, many make decisions about what they will study after high school by taking some type of career interest test, being persuaded by someone who doesn’t truly understand them, or on a whim.

By age 10 or 11 boys are ready to begin with much more active experimentation about those activities that give them a sense of identity and purpose. A boy who reaches late adolescence, and whose activities have been limited to academics and sports, has missed out on critical opportunities for self-development. Begin by taking boys and their prospective contributions seriously. Teach them consequential skills. Don’t limit their “work” to household chores. Lead them toward the powerful fun of doing as a counterpoint to the realm of fantasy and games.

What do you think are some of the challenges adolescent boys face today compared to earlier generations?

Well, so much as changed in recent decades. First, there is abundant trivial amusement in the form of electronics. It’s impossible to overstate the effect of electronica; it’s everywhere and it’s all the time. It takes up all the mental

Cracking the boy code_FB

space the boys might have for reflection and consideration of new ideas. Boys also have to contend a world that wants them to delay the onset of adulthood! We may think we want boys to be more mature, but that only goes as far as our expectations for self-control. Otherwise, there’s lots of pressure to suppress the privileges of adulthood. In generations past, a boy of age 16 might already have a significant role in his community, able to do important work and thus to be respected. Now, we seem to tell boys and young men to sit in their chair, pay attention, and work as hard as they can – but for what? That is precisely the reason that so many adolescent boys have a sudden drop in motivation in about 10th or 11th grade. They are old enough to ask themselves “Why am I doing this?” And if they don’t get a sufficient answer, the formally compliant “good boy” now becomes someone who is visibly unhappy, and restless in his life.

It’s not that academics are unimportant because they certainly are. Most schools do a fine job of emphasizing academics and character development. But there are two other massively important issues in boys lives which are typically neglected. There is the issue of authenticity, figuring out who you are as an individual and where you fit in the world. And then there is the issue of agency, believing you can have an effect on the world; seeing that your actions are of consequence, and becoming stronger through an ability to script your own life. It’s difficult to help adolescent boys connect with these priorities unless there is some type of reset. For example, you can’t ask young people to allocate their time in exactly the same way year after year, but somehow expect their thinking to evolve in a dramatically different way.

I believe we need to shake up how time is allocated and how we discuss personal priorities. I have been emphatic that schools should commit themselves to what I’ve called a “wisdom culture” which is focused on self-reflection and dialogue. Remarkably, for all the intensity and activity that adolescence now includes there are many boys and young men profoundly affected by boredom. They know that they are square pegs being forced through round holes, and they naturally resist the shaping of their deeper selves into something they don’t want to be. We can immediately begin to lessen the stress by openly discussing the situation in a practical way. We should side with boys in this regard and commit ourselves to more flexible thinking about options. The most essential form of empathy supplied by adults is encouraging greater psychological freedom; thinking more openly about individual differences, and how a good life might take shape. For most this is more challenging than driving kids to games and the stress of being a disciplinarian. We can’t always have great discussions in 10 minutes, or just once. It takes some time to cultivate an atmosphere of more creative thinking. A therapist can be useful to jumpstart important conversations.

With the recent, and important rise of the #MEtoo movement, a global conversation about sexual violence, how do we ensure we include boys in the conversation?

The answer to this important issue is embedded in the question: we should literally include boys in the conversation. So often, we assume that boys don’t want to discuss socially complex or morally ambiguous issues. That is not the case. They love these issues!  However, they often shut down because they feel they are being talked at, rather than talked to. Unfortunately, big social issues are often brought up on the periphery of other discussions, with insufficient time for broader exchange of ideas. Of course, it’s important to discuss these issues everywhere but given the importance of these issues to the broader culture I wish we could organize more formal discussions, guided by facilitators skilled in asking the right questions. I’ve been involved in initiating these types of discussions in different countries and cultures, and I find that without exception boys are willing and ready to engage.

To me, these topics are best discussed among peers and where there is opportunity to “try on an idea,” rather than in the quiet tension of a living room where there is a vague sense that this is more of a lecture than a discussion. The main impediment to making these discussions more relevant and powerful in boy’s lives is not boys, but the discomfort adults often feel in making young people equals in the discussion of big ideas. The recent success of students in addressing gun violence should serve as a reminder of how insight and passion belong to people of all ages.

And the final question comes from one of our readers.

Are communication problems a new, growing trend among adolescent boys? What’s causing it? Do you see this specifically among boys in the U.S., or does it happen globally? Does this distance happen with adolescent girls as well? In what ways do caregivers need to adapt their communication style between boys and girls?

Thank you for this insightful question. Boys, and adolescents especially, have always been a communication challenge for parents. However, the communication impasse seems to loom larger today because communication and messaging is the “rocket fuel” of human connection. Most of us communicate more, and more personally, than people did years ago. There’s a down side to so much personal revelation, but it has become the norm. Did you know that most adolescent boys groan when asked if they use Facebook? They really don’t like the pressure, and many feel as though it is an obligation and a waste of time. I found this to be a consistent trend among boys all over the world. My sense is that girls may feel differently about social communication, although many may feel as burdened as boys.

Boys will work their way through the hormonal, moody, social ambivalence of adolescence. Parents can meet the challenge of this phase of life by using what I call “task-tone.” This is a very matter-of-fact way of talking that reduces the emotionality of exchanges, which in turn reduces feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness. Make less eye contact and focus on speaking in shorter succinct sentences. Ask less open-ended questions, and more “multiple choice” type questions. Help boys process issues that may seem emotional to adults, as matters of practical thinking and problem-solving. Be affirmative, and signal with your words and body language when discussion of a topic is concluded. Don’t let conversation become repetitive and anxiety provoking! It only makes the next conversation harder to get going.

Major hint: The tone of our communication with boys is far more important than what we talk about. Respect is the primary signal adolescent boys are looking for; it is the most significant expression of love for boys working through personal changes.



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