All throughout Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, I (David) discuss the boy brain. When I teach on boy development, I start the conversation highlighting three strikes a boy has against him, in helping parents and educators understand why he is so physical, under-focused, and always moving. I discuss how he’s hard-wired for acting before thinking, and the different ways this can complicate his academic and relational journey.
If a boy is hard-wired for activity and movement, of course he isn’t naturally slowing down, reflecting, focusing, observing and operating from a place of awareness the way most of his female counterparts will.
Countless studies have unearthed how boys have a tougher time than girls reading nonverbal cues. For example, Coreen Farris, a researcher at Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, conducted a study with undergraduate students revealing how young men struggled to differentiate between females who were being friendly and those who were interested in more than friendship.
Many studies have identified a female’s advanced abilities to use and read nonverbal communication. Deborah Tannen, in her book, You Just Don’t Understand labels the differences in communication styles of females and males as “rapport-talk and report-talk.” According to Tannen, females use conversation to increase connection, maintain intimacy and develop and rapport. Males, on the other hand, talk to deliver data, build status and establish independence. Women tend to stand in closer proximity to one another, gesture frequently, and maintain eye contact. Men typically keep greater distance, gesture less and avoid eye contact. Researchers generally agree that upwards of 70-80% of all communication is non-verbal. In order to decode language, we have to open our eyes and not just our ears. Once again, she has advanced abilities.
Equally so, boys are hard-wired for competition. His competitive nature will serve him beautifully in many contexts. It can equally work against him. His hunger to outperform, dominate or win at all cost, can stand in the way of awareness.
Building Block: Cues
Because a boy’s brain is hard-wired for acting before thinking, has trouble reading non-verbal communication, and bends toward competition, he will benefit from having cues that help him slow the train of thought down. When I (David) was growing up, my wise mother used cues all the time. She had a practice of saying nothing, but simply touching a different part of her body. She’d touch her lips if I was chewing with my mouth open. She’d touch her elbow if mine were draped across the dinner table. She’d touch her foot if I’d accidentally put my feet on someone’s furniture. She’d touch her ear if I was talking too loud or too much. She’d pinch her nose if I forgot to put on deodorant. She’d touch her zipper if my fly was open, and she’d motion like a zipper across her mouth if I was turning a conversation into an argument. Now that I think back on it, my poor mother spent a lot of my growing up having to touch body parts in an effort to strengthen my awareness. And my sister didn’t need half of these reminders!
The beauty of the cues is how it strengthened my awareness without her nagging me all the time. Test-drive different visual cues with boys. You can also hang note card reminders in your son’s bedroom, bathroom, and car dashboard, depending on where he most needs them. We also encourage parents to use one liners, like “try again,” or “OUCH,’’ when a kid or adolescent is unaware of how disrespectful they’re being. This gives them a chance to pause and get a do-over. If they intentionally repeat the behavior or words, that cues you they are choosing to disobey you in that moment and go straight to a consequence.
For more tips on helping boys develop socially, emotionally and spiritually, check out our new book, Are My Kids on Track?