Just the Facts, Jack
How to scale the wall of silence: Keep it simple.
Illustration by Sean McCabe
Things are not going well in the Pioneer Patrol, Troop 12’s new-Scout group. The Scouts have been bickering about the duty roster, their voices loud enough to be heard from the adults’ tent area.
Hoping to head off trouble, an assistant Scoutmaster gathers the boys to talk about the situation. She’s met with a stony silence and stonier expressions.
When she asks what’s going on, the patrol leader says, “Nothing.” When she asks another Scout how he feels, he says, “Fine.”
She can’t figure out how to get the Scouts to open up.
What’s Going On
Experts say both nature and nurture are to blame when older boys and teens clam up.
The first thing you have to realize, according to family therapist and author Michael Gurian, is that male and female brains are wired differently. In fact, as he reports in The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives, “neurobiologists have been able to track over 100 biological differences between the male and female brain.”
These biological differences affect how boys deal with their feelings, Gurian says. Boys are more likely to express themselves with actions rather than words and more likely to look for quick solutions to problems rather than to delve deeply into them. And when they do work through emotions, the process takes them longer.
The other problem is societal expectations, according to clinical psychologist and author Michael Thompson. “Boys lose facial expressions from ages 7 to 15 because they are under constant pressure, both internal and external, to present themselves as strong and competent,” he writes in It’s a Boy: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18. As a result, Scout leaders can have a tough time seeing behind boys’ masks.
What You Can Do
Since boys are more likely to talk about facts than feelings, start off by talking about what happened rather than how they feel. Also recognize that boys communicate as much with body language as they do with words. If you notice negative body language (crossed arms and averted eyes, for example), Thompson recommends breaking the ice by saying something like, “Well, I can tell everyone is uncomfortable with this.”
Thompson also recommends that adults put their emotional cards on the table first. Adults who don’t show emotions—especially men—shouldn’t expect kids to do so. “This is especially important for dads,” he writes. “How can you expect your son to share his feelings with you when you insist on looking strong at all times yourself?”
Another strategy is to take advantage of male brain biology. Gurian points out that boys often relate to one another best through what he calls “relational intermediaries”—balls, sticks, and other objects that make their relationships more comfortable.
Rather than have a completely verbal conversation with a group of Scouts, turn the conversation into a game that puts a twist on the Native American tradition of the talking stick. Start with a roll of toilet paper. Hold the end of the paper and toss the roll to one of the Scouts. While he holds the roll, he has the floor and can talk. When he’s done, he tosses the roll to another Scout, holding onto his section of paper. The silliness of the game can break the ice, while the toilet paper can serve as a relational intermediary.
You might just have to bide your time if techniques like that don’t work. As Thompson says, “Be patient. Be available. For as long as it takes.”