How to Listen so Boys Will Talk

Photo by Bindaas Madhavi via Flickr
Photo by Bindaas Madhavi via Flickr

Being able to communicate/share is one thing. Having confidence that the adult recipient will handle the message properly is another. — Robert Brown

I grew up in a home where communications were never a millimeter deeper than pure surface, transactional messaging. “I love you;” “How are you feeling?”You look sad today and What’s up?” never shattered the formality of our “good home.” So opening-up about a problem….mmmm….not gonna happen.

Once, when I was 11-years-old and mugged for my money by some very tough ocean-front boys, I HAD to tell my father what happened, as I needed to account for the vanished cash. Hearing “you let them do what?!” was about what I expected. So telling my parents about sexual abuse at the hands of older boys was definitely never going to happen. I hope you chew on this dynamic for a moment, because it’s a very real thing!

My door is always open,” or “you can tell me anything,” are empty words to most boys who see ample evidence that verbal disclosure of any negative is not what you want. You may think your son will tell you anything, but in reality, for that to happen, you need to have proven yourself as a resource, and not just a potential added pain.

Your son needs to know: Are you really willing to help, or are you just curious as to what kind of trouble he may be in? Can he trust that you’ll react in a way that’s not going to cause him added pain?

Imagine that your son is failing a few classes at school. Imagine he’s been keeping the news to himself, and that it’s eating at him. Think for a moment: Why would he keep it a secret? Why wouldn’t he tell you? Why would he tell you? What does he expect from you?

If you are the type to flip-out dramatically over news of neglected homework and never-even-started science projects, the only reason you son will tell you – if he tells you at all  — is because he’s trying to lessen trouble down the road, or to relieve his current burden; he won’t actually expect a positive outcome.  But if you have proven yourself a helpful resource, through your responses to his past problems, he’ll gladly share anything because he knows you’ll help him dig out of the quagmire.

When your son comes to you with a problem, ask him “what would you like from me? His answer may surprise you. He may just want you to know he’s worried sick about something, but that he can take care of it.  He may want your intervention or active participation. (We can’t put out all of our kids’ fires, nor should we; it’s up to you, as the adult, to determine an appropriate level of intervention.)He might just want you to know that he’s doing battle in the world and hopes you’re there for him when it’s over.

If your son is not ready, willing and able to tell you about faltering grades, or a scrape in your car he made with his bike, I can guarantee you that he’ll not tell you about the very, very big things.  Work on your responses, on listening and responding to your kids. Have a “daily sharing” if you need to, even if it’s mundane or funny stuff. But prove to them that you can listen, and that they can trust you.

Your son’s very life, soul and health may depend on it.

Rob Brown was born and raised in New England, though at the age of 26, he left a tech career in Germany to return to the USA to seek the formal education he never acquired. As an avid racing sailor, Rob completed in collegiate teams under NCAA. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1992 with an MBA in Marketing. In 2008 he shifted life focus from Government Relations positions for various legal publishers, to seeking justice for abuse victims Nationally and Globally. He is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, and is an active field advocate for abuse survivors.

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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2 Responses

  1. “What would you like from me?” What a great way to open communication! We all wonder, what should I say, and this seems like a great place to start.

  2. They (boys) tell us so many things in the strangest times and ways.

    Very recently, I was working with a class of high-functioning foreign students for whom the English language is “good,” but not at-grade-level. One little guy (11-yo and I’ll call him Ali) is from a culture of extremes, including patriarchy. Opening-up to Mom and Dad does not happen in his home or culture, so kids like these will frequently open up to me.

    If this happens with you too, consider yourself trustworthy of kid’s. That is a dramatically important role in society, and I pray that you take it quite seriously. Its very likely that he or she will not do that with anyone else if you don’t respond correctly. And child’s trust of an adult, is sacrosanct. Don’t blow this pivotal moment!

    A silly conversation of “what-ifs” came up, and one boy posed the question, “if an alien ship were to land and offer to take you with them to their planet, would you go?”

    Ali went quieter than he usually is. “I’d go! Hell yeah! I’d go!” I asked “why?” “Because I don’t want to live here. Life here is horrible!”

    A child does not float a statement like that and expect you to sluff it off. He/she is putting up a bright-red flare, and they want you to hop to attention.

    Don’t lie. Don’t pretend to agree. Those tactics are phoney and children know a fake adult a mile away. It’s a special power exclusive to children, and it is very real.

    Further digging with genuine concern revealed that he’s quite scared that he and his family will be killed someday via apparent hatred for Muslims in The USA. He’s afraid and frustrated that people pin violence and horror upon him — upon his family. Basically, there are people who are scaring him off the planet. THAT, we can work on.

    Turn the car radio off. Kill your TV. Get off the phone! Whenever your child can be heard by your ears, LISTEN!

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