The Grunt and the Gurgle: The Secrets of Communicating with Boys and Girls (Part 1)
It's not uncommon to hear moms joking about the differences in raising boys and girls. It usually sounds a little something like, "Boys are physically exhausting and girls are emotionally exhausting." But we all know, the differences are much more complicated than just the type of exhaustion each gender typically produces. This week we are incredibly spoiled to have the amazing David Thomas and Sissy Goff helping us navigate some of the fundamental differences in our boys and girls and giving us their top secrets to communicating with them. I'm in awe of their combined experience and wisdom.
Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by David Thomas has been, and continues to be, a tremendous GIFT to me as I try to understand and lead the hearts and minds of my own "Wild Things." And Intentional Parenting by Sissy Goff, David Thomas, and Melisssa Trevathan has been an essential guide in my parenting journey, combining a grace-based approach with practical advice (a rarity in parenting books!) to navigate some of the most common parenting struggles. I can't recommend these books highly enough.
So it is with a very thankful heart that I share Part 1 - "The Grunt"- by David Thomas with you today. And on Wednesday, you do not want to miss Part 2 - The Gurgle- by Sissy Goff.
By David Thomas
Our friend, Courtney, said “David, you need to meet my friend, Jeannie. Trust me, she’s the real deal.” Those words were confirmed minutes into my first conversation with Jeannie Cunnion. She is the real deal. I couldn’t have enjoyed her more. I think I described her as the “real deal” when I first mentioned her to my friend and colleague, Sissy Goff. Sissy liked her so much she invited herself to Jeanie’s house in Connecticut for a visit. We still laugh about this, but it’s simply a reflection of how immediately we were both drawn to Jeannie and trust her heart. We also share a passion for understanding the kids we love.
From that shared passion, Jeannie kindly invited us to share some observations we’ve made along the way in our work as counselors with children, adolescents and families. The bulk of my day is spent in the company of boys. I counsel mostly boys and adolescent males. Two of my three children are boys. My dog is even a boy. I live and function in this testosterone-driven world. I find boys to be fascinating creatures, and I continue to learn so much from sharing space with them.
Years ago, I was given an opportunity to write a book on boys. Sissy co-authored my all time favorite book on girls, and we have opportunities to travel around the country and talk about the differences, the importance of understanding the role development and how this understanding can shape how we parent, communicate, discipline, and connect with our kids. These differences are evident from the earliest moments.
Research shows girls are more attuned to the sound of human voices and seem to actually prefer the sound to other sounds. From birth, baby boys and girls like to grunt and gurgle. The difference is girls prefer people to interact with while boys are equally happy to chatter away at abstract geometric designs. The male brain is wired for activity while the female brain is biased towards the personal.
From birth baby boys are more active and wakeful,, but baby girls show an aptitude in communicating and are more sensitive to relationship compared to boys. One study involving 2-4 day old babies revealed infant boys spent 50% less time holding eye contact with an adult than infant girls. She is wired for relationship. It’s not that he can’t do relationship, but much about the way he engages relationship is different.
These relational patterns are further understood as we study the gender differences in the brain. Our brains are full or white and grey matter, responsible for a range of tasks and processing. The white matter in the female brain is concentrated in the Corpus Collosum, the part of the brain that links the hemispheres and helps both sides of the brain “talk” to each other effectively. This explains why females are stronger verbally than males.
In her book You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen labels the differences in communications styles of females and males as “rapport” talk and “report” talk. According to Tannen, females use conversation to maintain intimacy, develop rapport and increase connection. Males, on the other hand, talk to establish independence, build status and deliver data.
Researchers generally agree that upwards of 70-80% of all communication is nonverbal. When females talk to each other, they generally stand close together, maintain eye contact and gesture frequently. Males typically keep a greater distance, avoid eye contact and gesture much less often. The differences go on and on. As parents, we want to be strategic, creative and intentional as we encounter these differences.
With boys, it’s always good to talk around a task – build legos, stack blocks, craft objects from wood, shoot hoops, play catch, or walk the family dog. Boys have some of their best conversations side by side rather than face to face. Eye contact can actually feel threatening to boys and we end up with less access to them rather than more.
Secondly, take advantage of bedtime. The window between winding down and sleep is an advantageous window to get access to a boy. His emotional defenses are down and we can have some of our best conversations with him while rubbing his head, scratching his back, or just laying next to him in the dark. Again, we are able to avoid eye contact in a way that often feels safe to him.
Thirdly, learn to read between the lines. Boys take a certain amount of decoding. Throughout his development, he will question his abilities, his ranking in the pecking order of the boy world, his identity, and his purpose. We want to watch for moments where we see evidence of his questioning or doubting himself in his behavior. By 9-10 his brain will instinctively begin to channel all primary emotions (sadness, fear, disappointment) into one emotion – anger. When he melts down and starts hitting or throwing objects over losing a game, missing an important goal, or not being invited to a birthday party, we’ll have to help him put words to his experience so he learns to articulate his experience.
Tune in for Part 2 on Wednesday with Sissy for some valuable tips in best communicating with your daughter. Furthermore, congratulations on finding your way to Jeannie’s blog. Continue finding your way back to the rich insight she’s offering month to month as we travel along this fascinating, sometimes overwhelming, always adventure-filled, transforming journey of parenting.
DAVID THOMAS, L.M.S.W., is the Director of Family Counseling at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, TN. He is the co-author of six books, including the best-selling Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (Tyndale House Publishers), a frequent guest on national television and radio, a regular contributor to ParentLife magazine, and speaks across the country. His first video curriculum, Raising Boys and Girls: The Art of Understanding the Differences (Lifeway) is currently available, as is his newest book, Intentional Parenting (Thomas Nelson). You can find him blogging about all things related to kids at raisingboysandgirls.com. He and his wife, Connie, have a daughter, and three Wild Things (twin sons and a feisty yellow lab puppy named Owen).