When tasked with the challenge of representing adult voices in the classic Peanuts television specials, then music director Vince Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson quickly turned to a peculiar solution: a trombone player. The muted “wah wah” sound of the trombone fit their criteria of representing what an adult might sound like to a child. Their artistic decision was both bold and familiar. Years later, adults and children alike mimic that muted trombone “wah wah” to signal our annoyance or boredom with a communication.
Given that regular and open communication with our sons is essential, how do we become more than a “wah wah” sound and encourage our sons to communicate openly with us? How do we ensure our sons feel heard and that they hear us? We must be present, and we must have their trust. And, we’ll need to be patient, especially in those moments in which it’s the hardest thing to do.
Establishing Trust & Minimizing Vulnerability
Adam Cox, an adolescent psychologist who has written extensively on communicating with boys, emphasizes the importance of tone when he says: “Your voice is the single most powerful tool you have in establishing safe, positive connections with boys.” So how do we use it well?
By reducing a boy’s sense of vulnerability, we invite him to a conversation in which he readily hears what we are saying, and in which he feels safe to articulate his thoughts and emotions. According to Dr. Cox, a key component of creating this atmosphere is the use of what he calls task-tone. “A task-tone," he suggests, "encourages you to speak in shorter sentences and to focus on concrete actions that lead to specific outcomes... It’s effective because boys can sense that the conversation has a purposeful trajectory and an end-point.”
A task-tone is not the same as monotone; its simplicity and directness is not meant to bore, but to minimize the need for boys to decode the speaker’s emotions, a function of a different part of the brain, and a more overwhelming and challenging aspect of communication.
To practice our task-tone, Dr. Cox suggests we should sound more like a coach and less like a boss by aiming to minimize the emotion in our voices to reduce boys’ apprehension, speaking more slowly, using shorter sentences, and pausing after we make an important point. These elements contribute to a tone of “confidence and clarity” that keeps us from limiting boys’ engagement by sounding too overbearing, or from causing them to distance themselves from overly emotional language that may convey worry or frustration. In general, Dr. Cox emphasizes, boys “respect and listen to those who serve up options without judgment," and with a tone that honors the complex task of articulating our thoughts.
As boys grow older, they tend to share less spontaneously. The avoidant, and sometimes terse, one-word responses we readily assign to adolescence are part of a frustratingly healthy development for all children that requires we explore new ways to develop and maintain connections with them. Dr. Cox makes an important observation about this developmental period when he writes: “Rather than harboring secrets, the boundaries boys draw have more to do with their inclination to stake out private mental space, which among other things, allows them to relax and think more clearly. Boys, like adults, typically have a set of private rules for who gets to enter their mental space, and which topics are open and closed for discussion.”
©2019 Jeff Stahler/Dist. by Andrews McMeel Syndication
At times, we may feel that our sons introduce obstacles to our efforts to connect. As esteemed psychologist of boys and author of How to Raise a Boy Michael Reichert observes, sometimes boys become reticent to open up because they do not expect to be heard, especially when discussing challenging topics. The more they speak, the more they may share things that are open to being misunderstood. Furthermore, as Dr. Cox notes, the task of free and open-ended communication may cause certain boys to feel vulnerable. “There is anxiety about others seeing and judging the way that they think” or hearing the difficulty they have in forming and articulating their thoughts for others to hear.
Our efforts to open up topics for discussion and to “increase conversational courage” are most effective when, according to Adam Cox, they minimize boys’ sense of vulnerability. Here are a few approaches that may help us along the way.
Take an active interest in the things that interest your son.
Establishing a regularly scheduled time for him to structure and spend with you in whatever way he wishes allows him to create a space in which he is the expert. The goal is to establish and maintain a connection with him, no matter what he might do, Dr. Reichert notes. As such, there are a few rules: “not giving advice, not dividing attention among other tasks, not talking to others or interrupting the time that’s been promised, and not modifying the activity the boy has chosen, no matter how hard it might be to see its point.” In this comfortable space, he can take the lead in conversation and action without the worry of being corrected or directed.
Ask questions, and don’t judge the answers.
We both help our son practice articulating his thoughts and establish a foundation of open dialogue by asking questions. Dive past the top- level questions like “What game are you playing?” or “What are you reading?” to questions that encourage your son to describe something that makes him curious, proud, or even frustrated. As boys enter adolescence and share less about their daily school experience, parents sometimes find themselves asking about grades, even if indirectly. Doing so does not invite boys to better understand themselves as young learners and may lead to avoidance for fear of some judgment. More open-ended questions like “What was the most interesting thing you heard about today?” establish lines of communication that encourage your son to share in his experience. "It’s not the answers that are important” at the time, Dr. Cox notes, “it’s the feeling of being asked such questions.”
Face the same direction.
Boys tend to develop relationships shoulder-to-shoulder while engaged in an activity. Going for a walk, taking a ride in the car, or sharing in a game or activity introduces two key variables that promote conversation and reduce vulnerability in boys: movement and limited eye contact. The energy of a conversation is dispersed, making your son feel that he is not the sole focus of observation and that your conversation is not the sole purpose of being together. Eye contact is essential and necessary for understanding each other. But since the connection it forms can create safety and trust, and the directness of it can heighten anxiety and make boys less able to form their thoughts into words, we must be thoughtful about when we employ it. In Cracking the Boy Code: How to Understand and Talk with Boys, Dr. Cox provides a convenient list of “Do’s and Don’ts of Eye Contact.” He suggests eye contact is helpful when we are in a supportive listening mode or offering praise, and reminds us that eye contact is unhelpful when either person is upset, or right after a mistake. Our eyes can communicate both pride and shame, and our goal is to strengthen the relationship and open dialogue. Use eye contact carefully.
When we are asking questions to solve a problem or to allay one of our concerns, avoid ambiguity. If we are concerned about something, be clear about that at the outset, and give an end-goal for the discussion. “Expressing expectations prior to beginning a conversation is a way of giving conversation a purpose,” Dr. Cox emphasizes. If we are vague, we are likely to be met with suspicion and equally vague answers. For example, he offers, “By saying you want to understand why it’s been difficult to shut down electronics and get to bed on time, then questions have a pragmatic foundation. There is no hidden meaning, and the intention to solve an important problem is made clear.” Such an approach takes you farther, and more quickly than an indirect question like, “So what are you doing up on that computer so late? Do I need to take it away?”