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Boys of Few Words
Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect
By Adam J. Cox
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2006 Adam J. Cox
All rights reserved.
Is Your Son a Boy of Few Words?
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Five-year-old Jeremy is a small, busy boy with dark hair and a mischievous expression. He's very interested in superheroes and race car drivers. Despite his energy and enthusiasm, he's struggling to adjust to kindergarten. Jeremy's teacher has trouble getting his attention, and he resists joining group activities. Within his first month of school, he pushed one of the other children three times. When his teacher asked him why, he would only repeat, defiantly, "It's not my fault." When his parents made similar inquiries, he "put on his storm face," as his mother calls it, and refused to answer. His parents acknowledge that little things seem to "set him off" and worry that aggression is the primary way Jeremy expresses himself. They wonder if he'll outgrow it or if there's something else they can do—so far, attempts at discipline like time-out only seem to undermine any willingness he has to cooperate or communicate with them.
Aaron is a thin, serious eight-year-old with extraordinary intellectual gifts. Because he reads science fiction voraciously and has a good vocabulary for things related to astronomy or the parts of a "cyborg," his father calls him "the little professor." Despite his strengths, he often seems lost in his own world. His parents wonder if he notices other people and if they notice him. Aaron rarely talks to peers and complains that no one likes him. He looks puzzled when asked to explain the difference between sadness and anger "He's like the 'invisible' boy. He'll share his thoughts, but not his heart," explained his mother. "When I talk to him about making friends at school or ask him how he's feeling, he immediately changes the subject. The only conversations we have are about facts—what causes a volcano to erupt, how you predict a hurricane, and so forth. I'm proud that he knows about those things, but he doesn't pick up on what other people are interested in. Shouldn't he want more friends?"
Morgan, a tall, heavy-set eleven-year-old, is passionate about fantasy computer games, especially when he can play with someone else. However, his parents complain that other kids don't want to come to the house because Morgan gets so caught up in the game he starts "giving orders," insisting that his peers play the games as he says. When the other kids resist or get bored, Morgan becomes unreasonably frustrated Sometimes he acts out, blurring the distinction between the characters in game scenarios and his companions. His mother quietly admits that at times even she feels a little afraid of Morgan. "I think he gets too carried away with the games. He's old enough to realize that a game's just a game and that people matter more, but honestly, if we took away his computer, I'm not sure how he'd react.'
Fourteen-year-old Zachary avoids family interaction. He feels excessively self-conscious when asked about his day or anything remotely personal. When his parents try to discuss their concerns with him, he just shrugs and says, "I don't know. Nothing is wrong. Just leave me alone." Zachary is obsessed with building remote control cars and spends hours working on them. Despite his father's hope that this hobby would help their relationship, Zachary works mostly in silence, speaking only when he wants help and only about the cars. "When he's not working on the cars, he lives in his room," complains his mother. "When I ask, 'What are you up to?' he grunts. When I ask, 'What did you do in school?' he says, 'Nothing.' Sometimes it feels like we're strangers to him. I don't know how this happened.'
These are just a few examples of how the communication difficulties of boys become manifest in their daily lives. You may see them take shape as withdrawal, indifference, anger, depression, a combination of these traits, or something that looks entirely different to you. Your parental instincts suggest something might be wrong—but what? All you can really be sure of is that your son's communication has become infrequent or unexpectedly distant for someone you feel so close to.
How many times have you wondered what's going on in your son's mind or felt confused or frustrated by his apparent inability to express himself? Maybe you've felt the sting of his disinterest in relating to you. Even within the most loving parent-child relationship, connecting with boys can be a difficult, sometimes thankless task. Yet helping your son across the communication divide is an expression of your commitment to care for his social development and is one of the most enduring gifts you will ever give him.
Your concern demonstrates that you've already started to make that commitment. One of my principal goals is to offer specific interventions—ways to communicate with your son, draw out his self-expression, and create a nurturing family atmosphere—that you can use to help your son cross the communication divide. But your efforts to apply them will be most successful if they are supported by an understanding of why the task is so important and what your son is up against.
Why It's So Important to Nurture Communication in Boys
Communication skills help boys move beyond using speech for merely functional requests ("Can I watch TV?") or information retrieval ("Can we buy it?"). Our sons cross the communication divide when they begin using communication for self-definition ("I feel ... I believe ... I hope ... I am ..."). Learning to use expressive communication helps clear a path to a life full of mutually satisfying relationships and paves the way for greater personal and professional opportunities in adulthood. These are the stakes when it comes to talking about the social communication skills of boys.
Success in School and at Work Depends More Than Ever on Communication
Although boys today may have better vocabularies and more varied social opportunities than males of generations ago, the communication difficulties of boys are more noticeable than ever. This is because the societal demand to communicate and relate effectively is growing progressively stronger—faster than the pace at which the social communication skills of boys are developing. This discrepancy only highlights the communication divide, the growing gap between many boys' current social and communication skills and the level of ability required for full participation in social and vocational life in the twenty-first century.
The visibility of socially disconnected boys has grown steadily over the last hundred years because there are far fewer nonverbal, asocial lifestyle and vocational options. Socially challenged males are, unfortunately, destined to stick out or seem out of place if we don't act to reverse this trend. We are already beginning to see how the communication divide has contributed to characterizing the class structures of our time. In this century, your son is statistically unlikely to work the land or be a lonesome cowboy. Success in school, which rests squarely on the presumption that language is the basis of learning, is an expectation that society and most parents insist on. Few vocational options remain that don't rely heavily on social perception and communication. In fact, the business community has thoroughly embraced the concept of "emotional intelligence" (EQ)—a new emphasis on the value of emotional awareness that promotes personal health and successful relationships. The business world has learned that it literally cannot afford to ignore the contribution these skills make to organizational life. We live in increasingly complex, interactive, and crowded systems. Whether at home or school, boys are challenged to express what they think and feel, especially if they want their thoughts and feelings to count for something—if they want to be heard.
As a society, are we prepared to gamble that the growth of "technical jobs" and electronic communication will eliminate the need to manage basic social hurdles such as family life, friendship, courtship, and parenthood? The foundation for managing those hurdles is the capacity to use language as a tool for personal expression and social connection. And even the technological jobs that seem to insulate workers from face-to-face contact require skillful communication. How often have you seen an office crisis sparked by an ill-considered, cryptic, or poorly written e-mail?
In part, the communication challenges of boys have become more visible as the result of dramatic social changes in how people interact. In your son's twenty-first-century education, career, and relationships, he'll be expected to participate in highly social networks. His success will hinge on how well he can access and join those networks. And we cannot afford to wait until our sons are adults to get concerned about this reality. The demand to communicate and engage socially is happening right now, this very day, whether your son has just started preschool or is graduating from college.
Authentic Self-Expression Is Limited by the Erosion of Language
In some ways, the difficulty of becoming an effective social communicator stems from the gradual erosion of language, as it is subject to increasing levels of fragmentation. Sentence syntax (organizational flow) has been reinvented by electronic/media culture—not surprisingly, the preferred "input" source for many boys. Although the creativity reshaping how we use language may be extraordinary, it has led to virtual chaos. Parents may get upset when their sons talk "gangsta," "techno," or "jock," but those language influences ring loudly in your son's mind because they've become highly commercialized and appeal strongly to the emotions and self-absorption of youth culture. Complete sentences have arguably become an endangered species. The glib, cocky nature of commercial communication has contributed to boys' hesitation to communicate and express themselves more authentically. Their need to use authentic communication is no less, but the supply of safe opportunities to do so has diminished. Ironically, the internet has become one of the few places that males, boys included, are comfortable being vulnerable. Unfortunately, this type of conditioning is counterproductive to healthy social development, and rationalizing that "talking on the internet is better than nothing" doesn't really help.
Most Boys Don't Appreciate What They're Missing
Here's the catch. Boys are unlikely to recognize the extraordinary life advantages good communication skills confer—at least while they are still children. Most boys would probably smirk at the idea that communication skills are a "gift," even if you could get their attention long enough for them to consider the offering. For important reasons, boys are generally not well suited to appreciate the benefits of social communication.
For one thing, they are so often on the move, physically and psychologically. When their eyes rarely meet ours, it can lead us to wonder, "Did he hear me?"; "Am I getting through?"; "What does he think about what I'm saying?"; "When did he learn to act like this, and from whom?"
Another reason is that boys are clearly different from girls. I don't mean "worse" or "better" in any way. But my clinical experience, reinforced by ample investigation and research data on the subject, has shown that there are definite differences in the routes by which males arrive at their communication skills. Boys' brains work differently in some significant ways, and the thoughts and concerns that fill their minds are distinctly male. Although sometimes these differences can appear subtle, they can dramatically impact the ways that boys behave, especially when it comes to communication. (And yes, communication is a behavior.)
Sometimes we hear the differences between boys and girls before we see them. Adrienne, the mother of two boys and two girls, puts it this way: "The girls are always tuned in to what's happening with me, with each other, with the whole family. They're always talkative and very social. The boys storm in, clear out the snacks, and hit the video games. Major parts of family life bypass them—they're oblivious! If I want to get one of the boys' attention or ask him a question, sometimes I have to literally stand in front of him, repeat his name, and wave my arms. Even then, the response I get is barely more than 'Huh?' or 'I don't know.' It's not that they're unintelligent, but sometimes it's like talking to a wall. If my girls didn't respond so differently, I'd think it was me."
Then there's the world we live in. In the 1980s, as computers became a way of daily life for the average person, and throughout the 1990s as internet access became commonplace in family households, we frequently heard about the information Age, a time when the efficient exchange of information would be of paramount importance. It is not a coincidence that both the design and enthusiasm for such a scenario came largely from males. This is because for many males, the content of communication is far more important than its form. In fact, this is one of the ways in which males and females tend to differ. For many, although not all, females communication is a fundamental part of life that is intrinsically interesting and rewarding. In contrast, males often perceive communication as far more functional. And at the extreme end, for some men, communication is not a relational or creative process at all but a utilitarian act aimed at getting something they need or want—information. Although the efficient exchange of information through e-mail, instant messaging, or other innovations has its advantages, we should be concerned about a reciprocal downshift in our expressive capabilities. Yet in working with boys, I've noticed how frequently their communication patterns mimic the sparse functionality of mechanical communication. As a consequence, the ability to reflect on their emotions, the capacity to hold opposing thoughts in mind simultaneously, and the social instincts that guide our relationships truly "don't compute."
When boys adopt this type of utilitarian approach to communication, they are shortchanged. This is why it's so important that we recognize and adapt to the complexities of a boy's communication challenges before his possibilities have become unnecessarily limited. We must accept that we live in a world increasingly bound by the need to communicate and relate to others. Through communication we navigate the maze of experiences and relationships that make up a life—at home, school, and, eventually, work. Communication helps us define and know our emotional selves, making us more well rounded, better prepared to fully participate in the world.
Unfortunately, boys' relatively limited life experience does not give them access to such privileged information. As concerned parents, we should understand the value of communication as an element of self-development that enriches life and contributes to better psychological adjustment. Even buoyed by our convictions about the value of good communication skills, teaching them can be a daunting challenge. In part, this is because boys are often reluctant to work at things that don't come easily, particularly when they don't naturally sense how communication and relationships are so deeply intertwined. Social communication skills begin with a willingness to be expressive and to share a part of oneself with others. Self-expression invariably requires some degree of vulnerability, and as we will see, this is a fearful prospect for many boys.
The Signs of Problems Are Too Easy to Miss
Whether at home or at school, boys are rarely expected to be as verbal as girls. Because boys often seem to have an innate preference for expressing themselves through action versus language, it can be easy to miss or ignore signs of expressive language problems. Although most of us would likely agree that it is good for boys to communicate, social and expressive deficits may be overlooked in families where boys are more celebrated for their physical development, athletic ability, or skills in mastering more technical tasks. In our culture, the image of a happy little boy is one of a kid running around being busy, playing, jumping, running, throwing things, perhaps getting into a little mischief. If this is your little boy, he may not slow down long enough for you to notice if his expressive abilities are delayed. Yet as such boys mature, language deficits nobody noticed may "take root" and become part of their psychological makeup. Expressive problems lead to the emergence of social and emotional difficulties: boys have impoverished vocabularies for emotions and cannot "put their finger on" how they are feeling. Consequently, they struggle to manage or control difficult feelings and may be at a serious loss to read the emotions of others. In turn, this type of emotional illiteracy limits a boy's capacity to successfully initiate or sustain relationships. Incredibly, before many boys have even finished elementary school, they have silently concluded that they are socially incompetent. And as is so often true for boys, when they decide they are not good at something, they become disinterested. This briefly described sequence of events is a glimpse of how communication difficulties lead boys to project an attitude of social indifference. When we see the mask of indifference emerge, we can reasonably assume it's being used to hide a lack of confidence and declining self-esteem, at least with respect to social communication.
Excerpted from Boys of Few Words by Adam J. Cox. Copyright © 2006 Adam J. Cox. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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