What’s going on in the lives of boys today? Assuming you could convince them to stop playing video games long enough to ponder the question, chances are you’d find “nothing”, “I dunno”, and the ever-popular shoulder shrug among the most common responses. Why do boys tend to be so reticent when it comes to talking about their thoughts and feelings? In a world where strong communication skills are prerequisite for success in school and life, should their parents be concerned?“‘He just won’t talk to me,’ — I hear that all the time,” says therapist Adam J. Cox, PhD, author of Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect. “But the uncomfortable silence at home is often just the tip of the iceberg,” he explains. “Boys who find it hard to express themselves also suffer academically, and eventually, at work and in their personal relationships.”
The numbers offer a sense of just how significant the problem is: Boys account for more than 75% of enrollment in special education classes.
- Women now earn 14% more college degrees than men — a margin that experts expect to reach 20% by 2010.
- Boys are prescribed psychotropic medications four times as often as girls.
- Boys make up more 75% of children identified as emotionally disturbed and are four times as likely to complete a suicide attempt — often because they lack the means to express themselves.
Cox hones in on a range of factors that can influence a boy’s willingness or ability to communicate and connect with others, from social pressures (“men should be strong and silent) and harmful stereotypes (“boys don’t cry!”) to the fact that the physiology of boys’ brains and their social learning styles make them more vulnerable tolearning disabilities and attention problems. Some boys find it hard to express themselves because of shyness and others resist forming emotional connections due to problems with anger.
While every child’s needs are different, Cox identifies ten commitments all families can make to foster communication. “The first thing you have to do is make time — let your son know that he’s your top priority,” he says. “But making time also means more than simply doing something together. It means attending to him, noticing what he thinks and says, and responding in a way that makes him feel understood.” In Boys of Few Words, Cox outlines practical ways for parents to enrich their relationships with their sons and bridge the communication gap, including:
- Questions and activities that elicit self-expression
- Lessons in empathy and accepting differences
- Using literature, music and TV as a jumping-off point for conversation
- Making your home reader-friendly
- Discussing multiple perspectives on the same situation
- Cultivating his conscience
- How to encourage friendships
- Learning to take appropriate social risks — and accept social failures as normal
- Teaching how to give compliments
- Expressing the pride you take in his achievements
- Wordplay games for younger children
- Stressing compassion and acceptance
He also covers how to work with the school system and when to seek professional help, and contains dozens of listings for other resources parents can use to help their sons help overcome obstacles.
Cox urges parents to get involved as soon as they notice a problem. “You know your son the best so acting on your instincts is key,” he says. “All of the toys and privileges in the world don’t mean a thing if you can’t be there for him when he needs you.”
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