How to talk to boys – and get them to talk back
Having parented two girls into childhood and now adolescence, we’re still trying to wrap our heads around what it means to parent our son, suddenly a first-grader.
It’s not the same.
As much as I am not a huge proponent of focusing on lots of gender differences, there is no escaping the social reality of boys. It shapes them in profound ways. While we can’t protect or remove them from that shaping influence, learning about the structure of boy world (or refreshing ourselves, for those of us who were once boys) gives us a bit more of a compass for navigating these murky waters.
That’s where Rosalind Wiseman comes in. Having appreciated the insights from Queen Bees & Wannabesyears back, I have had on my shelf for a while her latest, Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Its title and size alone left me with a pit in my stomach. But I finally packed it on a trip and devoured the content during a couple of flights.
Wiseman not only parents two boys, but has researched Boy World on the ground through her cadre of over 200 middle school and high school advisors (plus a slate of parents). Their collective input delivers an impressive look into the ins and outs of boys’ actual reality in social contexts. Worth the price of the book alone is Wiseman’s description of the “Act-Like-A-Man Box” that most guys eventually resign themselves to inhabit. Similar to Michael Kimmel’s work on Guyland (see this article for an overview), there is a lot going on under the surface, and we need to be paying attention.
As a parent and a youth leader, I was struck by a few insights in particular about communicating with boys:
1. Boys want to connect, they often just don’t know how.
Boys themselves attest to their need for parents and adults who are there for them, even though they may act like they could care less. So even when you get brushed off, don’t give up on connection. Don’t pull away permanently, even when he does temporarily.
2. Don’t interrogate.
One of Wiseman’s boys shares, “The first thing my mom says to me every day after school is, ‘Tell me five things that happened at school today.’ Five. She exhausts me.” And of course when he can’t remember five things or isn’t in the mood to unpack his day immediately, she feels like he’s hiding things and he gets annoyed. So what can we do? First, recognize that the school day can be completely exhausting when you figure in the combination of academics with complex social dynamics. Wiseman suggests, “Your goal is to make the first few minutes stress-free. If you do this, he’ll be much more likely to tell you about how his day was on his own. Try asking no questions when you see him.” After some time, invite him to share one high and one low. And be willing to share your own. Then leave him alone.
3. Try the night.
Most boys respond best when they’re winding down later in the evening, or when they’re going to bed. Even though this means staying up later for older teens, it’s worth it to occasionally wait up and see if he’s more receptive to sharing a conversation.
4. Boys usually say, “I’m fine, don’t worry about it.”
The truth is, they’re really feeling the complete opposite. They’re trained to shrug away concern and show calm detachment. Offering a simple, “I’m here if you want to talk about it later” leaves a door open without forcing an interaction.
5. Offer them your help, but also a pathway to another adult.
There are things your son won’t want to tell you, but needs to tell someone. Most of the time that distinction needs to be made by him, not you. So how do you navigate all that while still making sure he’s getting adult help? Here’s a suggestion from Wiseman: “If —[whatever you’re wondering about] ever happens to you, you know you can talk to me. Or if you don’t want to talk to me, let’s think of someone that you would like to talk to.” Your son should have a few adult allies he can turn to that he knows will take him seriously and won’t break his trust by telling you.
6. Do something together.
Boys often talk more freely when they’re sharing an activity—a sport you both like, going on a hike, playing video games together, or doing something you know he’s interested in, whether you share the interest or not. Household chores can also become conversation starters when they’re shared rather than done individually. Stay away from phrases like, “Let’s spend time together,” or “I don’t see you enough anymore,” and instead offer something like, “Do you want to go to lunch?” Wiseman suggests, “Lunch has a definite beginning and end. Plus, you’re feeding him.” Brilliant. Be careful about raising the pressure for every experience together to be about deep bonding. That’s likely to push him away.
7. Don’t say these two things.
First, never, ever, ever call him a girl (or say he runs/hits/throws/anything else like a girl). Ever. Aside from the fact that it’s degrading to girls, you will lose every ounce of respect he has for you, and you’ll drain him of any personal dignity. Second, never say “I’ll take care of this,” or its many counterparts in response to a problem he’s facing. Taking over his battles will only cripple his ability to learn to face hard things, and will likely make him resent your control.
And one more thing: Be prepared to be changed by what you hear. This is Wiseman’s definition of listening. If we’re actually paying attention to what our boys tell us, we have to be willing to change in response. Especially when they come to us for help or when they point out something we do that drives them crazy.
Or he is seriously telling us how awesome that new video game is, and we want to roll our eyes and dismiss it as brain-rot.
I don’t completely resonate with everything Wiseman suggests, and in a few cases I want to have different or more direct conversations with my son about some of the issues raised when the time’s right. But the tips for talking are going to be invaluable as my son gets deeper into the boy world of older childhood and adolescence. Right now he wants to talk about everything. But that could all change.