Choose Communication Strategies to Help Boys Listen


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On any given school morning, my 11-year-old daughter is typically ready to leave 10 minutes early. Her 8-year-old brother, on the other hand, can often be found lounging in the living room, pajama-clad, teeth unbrushed.

"Ty, we're leaving in 10 minutes! You have to get dressed," Leah will bark at that point. She abhors being late (she's never late), and every morning Ty unwittingly sets her on edge with his glacial pace.

Not that I don't remind him several times. But until Leah barks at him, or I do, he doesn't start getting dressed. And then jeans take a while, and socks, well, there are two of them, after all. As for shoes, hmm, are they by the back door? Upstairs? At the bottom of the cavernous shoe basket?

Ty plays chess with great concentration, outwitting opponents to put their king in a complicated checkmate. He can follow a recipe's directions to produce a result everyone wants to eat, and can sit and listen to a book for hours, throwing in germane observations now and again. Why can't he get out the door on time?

I tried a list, posting one next to the front door that detailed all the items Ty needed to complete or gather before leaving for school. It didn't work.

So I fell back on reminders. "Time to get dressed, Ty." "Put your clothes on, please." "Get dressed." "NOW!"

"Mommy, you don't have to yell at me," Ty would say, crestfallen.

What is it with boys? Or is it kids? Or is it moms who lack authority?

Soon after, I read somewhere that boys may not hear as well as girls and have a harder time with the softer voices typically used by women. Aha, just speak louder. Well, maybe, but there is more to this equation.

Use fewer words

Boys are indeed more attuned to louder and lower sounds than girls, and their cochleae (inner ears) are longer than girls' so they don't hear sound as quickly as girls do. But the picture is more complex — no surprise — than hearing ability.

According to Abigail Norfleet James, psychologist and author of Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School, you don't have to speak louder, but you do need to speak firmly and use fewer words. Not because boys can't hear us, but because they may not be interested in what we're saying, at least not all the extraneous verbiage moms tend to throw in (nor are girls, my daughter would say). And they aren't as apt to take us seriously if we do throw it in.

"Women are oxytocin-driven humans who want relationships, and we want our kids to like us," says Kathy Stevens, co-author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life. "We think the more we talk, the more we connect. Mothers use a lot more words than boys need from us. As boys get a little older, they pick and choose, and they tune out what they consider to be the noise in between."

Stick to the bottom line

Boys tend to be less verbal than girls until about age 10, some boys much longer. They can get lost in words, especially when those words start to walk in circles like mine do. Even if they're very verbal, as my son is, boys don't want all the reasons why they should do something. Boys want the bottom line, says James, a veteran boys' schoolteacher, in part because they have a harder time than girls remembering auditory information.

Of course, boys do need us to talk to them, especially when they're young, for verbal skills to develop. Chat to your son about his favorite book, but skip the to-do list when you want him to feed the bunny.

So not only does Ty not need to listen to the language version of an upset stomach, but it appears I'm actually creating a bad habit by expecting him to do so. In short, I've been giving Ty tutorials in the fine art of tuning out.

Strategize together

James advises being specific about the behavior you want your child to stop, and specific about what will happen if it doesn't (and follow through). She also suggests bringing your child into the problem-solving process.

"The plan needs to be his idea. Otherwise, he may just agree to get you off his back," James says. For example: "Your toys need to be put away. How do you plan to get this done?"

So I sat Ty down and asked him what would help his mornings go more smoothly without me nagging. We brainstormed, landing on an easy-to-read chart with pictures — not a list of tiny words — and tasks broken down into time increments (his idea). If he ran late, he would miss out on playing in the afternoon.

The chart worked. But I suspect more than the chart, it was the simple act of taking action that changed the flow. Ty is spared the nagging reminders, and not once has he missed out on playing in the afternoon. I guess I finally sound like I mean it.

Joanna Nesbit is thankful her daughter is now a middle-schooler and leaves an hour before Ty, taking the morning panic with her.

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