Cracking the Boy Code: How to Understand and Talk with Boys

Cracking the Boy Code: How to Understand and Talk with Boys

by Adam Cox

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Learn the secret language of boys and how to reconnect

All too quickly, talkative, affectionate young boys seem to slip away. Adolescents may be transformed overnight into reclusive, seemingly impenetrable young people who open up only to their friends and spend more time on devices than with family. How do you penetrate this shell before they are lost to you?

Drawing on decades of experience garnered through thousands of hours of therapy with boys, Cracking the Boy Code explains how the key to communicating with boys is understanding their universal psychological needs and using specific, straightforward communication techniques. Coverage includes:

  • Why it's important to understand the psychological needs of boys
  • How to talk to be heard, and listen to understand
  • The crucial role of non-verbal cues
  • Learning the universal tone that helps boys listen
  • Motivating boys to become their authentic selves
  • Using purposeful work to teach boys self-respect and confidence
  • Reducing stress and creating greater closeness between boys and caregivers.

Essential reading for parents, caregivers, teachers, youth workers, coaches, and others who want to make a real connection with the boys in their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771422642
Publisher: New Society Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,071,151
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 16 - 18 Years

About the Author

Adam J. Cox , Ph.D is a clinical psychologist whose work includes thousands of hours interviewing children. His research includes a multi-year global research project, Locating Significance in the Lives of Boys , for the International Boys' Schools Coalition, during which he interviewed students and teachers in the US, Canada, UK, Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, from a wide variety of social and educational backgrounds. A sought-after therapist and frequent speaker on the psychology of boys, he is author of the acclaimed books On Purpose Before Twenty , Boys of Few Words and No Mind Left Behind . Cox lives in Rhode Island and shares his wisdom in his newsletter Family Matters at

Adam J. Cox, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist whose work includes thousands of hours interviewing children. A sought-after therapist and frequent speaker on the psychology of boys, he is author of the acclaimed books On Purpose Before Twenty, Boys of Few Words and No Mind Left Behind. Cox lives in Rhode Island and shares his wisdom in his newsletter Family Matters at

Read an Excerpt

Part I: Strategies and Techniques for Talking

Chapter One

What is Good Communication?

We need to begin with a basic premise: good communication is effective communication. This means getting through to another person. Having them hear you, and appreciate the point or value of what you are saying. Communication can be instrumental, like when we ask a basic question "What do you want for dinner?" That sort of communication is heard fairly well by boys, and it's also their favorite type to use "Pass the milk. Can I have twenty bucks? You gonna eat all them fries?" Generally, it's not hard for boys to communicate these sorts of basic questions or statements. It's the other type of conversation – social communication – which poses the challenge. It's a serious issue because most important communication is inherently social. We communicate because we want to connect with another person. For example, what do most of us do if we want to get to know another person better? What would you do if you wanted to build more trust into a relationship? What would you do if you wanted someone to better understand your thinking or emotions? Of course, you would talk to them! That's what our instincts tell us to do when we want to be closer to someone; when we want a stronger relationship.

Just because we want a stronger relationship, however, doesn't mean boys want the same. Mostly they are a little scared by getting too close to adults, and would rather remain somewhat undercover. When they do communicate with adults, they typically do so with a specific purpose in mind. That approach goes right along with the "bottom line" psychology of boys. Often, teenage boys think to themselves, "I'll communicate when I want something." You've probably noticed that boys can be more relaxed when they talk with friends, but the rules are totally different when it comes to talking with adults.

Should we fight this tendency in boys, or get comfortable working with it? Definitely, the latter. Overcoming the distance between any two people begins with mutual acceptance. The longer we spend trying to bend people to our will, insisting that they think and act differently, the longer we will be frustrated. Even the youngest of boys is capable of a fiercely strong will, and it doesn't take much for a boy to win a communication war. He just stops talking!

I'm an optimist, and I'm going to assume you are flexible, and willing to experiment with a new approach. First, let's agree that there is a degree of planning required to effectively communicate with boys. Let's also assume that the measure of whether our approach is working is how they respond. Sometimes that means giving us a signal that we've been heard, like raising their eyes to meet ours. Sometimes it amounts to more, like changing a behavior, or taking the initiative to do something without having to be reminded multiple times. (If you've ever met a boy under age eighteen, you are no doubt familiar with this challenge.) When we do get a response, it tells us we are building a bridge between our minds and theirs. Think of how a bridge can be used by people to advance or retreat across. This is the very point of communicating with boys – to give them a way to connect with us when they need to. Sure, at times they may choose to withdraw, but a well-built bridge will invite boys across time and again. To do this, we must know something about the minds of boys, and that is largely the focus of part one of this book. We will especially need to understand how listening style, apprehension, social awkwardness, and sometimes, adolescent self-absorption, can be roadblocks to that bridge. It has become popular to refer to these problems as pathologies (diagnosable conditions), but the problem with that perspective is we have made all of boyhood a "disease." I believe this is a serious problem – for us more than them.

Our number one priority is to get through to boys so that our support and guidance can fully register. Yet there is another important benefit to being an effective communicator. It's how we become role models for boys so that in time they can replicate our good communication strategies. The empathy and strategy we employ to create a connection with someone is exactly what good teachers do all the time.


I've already described two types of communication, instrumental and social, and emphasized that we want to work on the social type. There are also two dimensions to communication that are critical to remember – form and content. If we focus exclusively on the content of communication, what it is that we want to say, we lose awareness of the form of our communication. By form, I mean the way we say things, like the tone, volume, and speed of our speech. I also mean how we use nonverbal signals like facial expressions and body language. Although most people focus intently on what they want to say, they pay much less attention to the way they say things. Sometimes our feelings get hurt when we feel as though our words have been misunderstood, but it's often the case that the tone of our speech, facial expressions and body language told a different story than our words.

Major hint: It is the form of communication that resonates deeply for boys, and which they remember for hours and days after a conversation. This is Rule #1, and I'll remind you of it often. Your tone is "louder" than your words. How you say things lingers for longer than what you say.

Boys remember the way that you looked at them after reviewing a report card, and they remember the sound of your voice when you congratulated them after a sporting event, and how it might have been different from how you sounded after the school play. Most boys are sensitive to the tone of your voice, and the emotions conveyed by your face. By the way, it's not only an angry tone or look we need to think about. Boys are especially sensitive to signals that suggest they are not smart, or need to be treated like a "child." Even when you want to respond to their apparent immaturity, remember that you are building a relationship fueled by respect. More on this massively important topic later.


You Must Practice

We could probably agree that some skills come easier to some people than others. But most skills are acquired through constructive practice. All the skills in this book will become more automatic if you can commit to practicing them on a consistent basis. I know most of us don't think of communication as something we need to practice. Maybe it isn't if we are only thinking about how easy it is to talk with friends or other family members. Boys are a different story. You are communicating across generations. If you are female, you are also communicating across gender. The simple fact is that the better you can hear your own voice, and how it registers with boys, the more effective you'll be in getting through to boys. A major mistake is assuming that when we ask logical and rational questions, we have essentially done our job. Sorry, but that is not the case when it comes to relating to boys. Our questions may be logical, but if we don't pose them in a way that invites participation, we haven't moved a conversation and a relationship forward.

The reason communication warrants our careful attention is that it is at the center of how we present ourselves, and the impressions we leave with other people. It's also how we set up the possibility for future communication. One of the best feelings you can have after talking with boys is the sense that both of you are looking forward to the next chance to talk. If you struggle in communicating with your son or students, you've probably felt the sting of the opposite: like how it feels when there's nothing to say, and the conversation stalls. This happens to all adults, at least occasionally. I've spent years cultivating my own communication skills with boys, and it still happens to me from time to time. Sometimes it's hard to find the thread of common interest that brings two people together. You may wonder, "Why is it so hard when we both belong to the same family?" You'll do a whole lot better if you open your ears and listen closely to the things that boys say when there is no self-consciousness. There's almost always a hint in those moments for attentive listeners. Make a mental note to start your next conversation with that theme.

When all else fails, you can rely on a precious human commodity – truthfulness. When we are truthful, we are also authentic, and often a little vulnerable. Boys sense this about us, and recognize we have dropped our defenses. In response, they feel more comfortable dropping their own. Boys respond well to people that walk the walk, as well as those who talk the talk. For example, they like it when they see adults taking the kinds of emotional risks that adults are encouraging them to take. This is important for fathers or male mentors to do, because our society often tells boys that showing vulnerability, like being unsure of yourself, is not masculine. Often, traits associated with femininity are both overtly and covertly devalued. This is contrary to the "strength&honor" perspective, which emphasizes personal integrity, respect, and a willingness to learn what you don't yet understand. Good communication always involves a kind of transaction. Your openness is exchanged for boys' attention and participation. The sort of attitude and style I'm recommending here might sound a little like the skills the leader of group therapy uses, and they are. If you are leading a conversation, you are the facilitator, and it's up to you to model the emotional skills and honesty.

What is the hidden, and most important ingredient, in good communication with boys?


Respect and Seriousness

Okay, let me challenge a widely-held assumption about how to get along with boys. It's the belief that great relationships are built on lots of jokes, bending rules, and horsing around as much as possible. Hey, I know boys like these things, but they are not the qualities that win the day for adults who want a sustainable, respectful relationship with boys. Don't get me wrong, I believe humor is valuable, but not to the same extent as respect and seriousness. Does this surprise you? I think it would surprise many people, and I'm not sure that everybody will – at least initially - agree with me. If you're thinking, like many parents, that the most important thing that your son needs from you is love, then I've got some bad news for you. Most boys already assume they've got that in the bag. What I mean is that boys are not sitting at home anxiously wondering if their parents love them. I understand that in a few sad cases, boys may in fact need to be assured that they are loved. But I also know that readers of a book like this one have already met that need.

For most boys, the most important way to demonstrate your love is through respect. That's because in respect there is a sense that you're being taken seriously. Inside that seriousness, is confirmation of a positive status. When you project seriousness, you are making your own mental orbit visible and accessible. It a natural and strong attractor for boys and young men. You will find that this is a theme throughout this book because it is the most important, yet most under-discussed theme in the psychology of boyhood. Hours of school assemblies and parental lectures are spent trying to convey morals to boys. Though well intended, they usually neglect the most effective form of appeal – respect. When I am fortunate enough to have a chance to demonstrate the power of respect at various school gatherings, it is an eye opener for everybody.


Chapter Two

Is He Hearing You?

Two basic things we need to consider about the difficulty of getting through to boys is that they don't always hear enough of what we say, and what they do hear is often at least partially inaccurate. Many attempts at talking to boys can be thwarted by their selective hearing, poor listening skills, and distraction. Let's take a closer look at these challenges to better understand what's going on when we are trying to communicate. Then, we'll strategize about how to get around these obstacles.

The brain differences of boys are a hot topic in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. I've written about these differences in my other books, and have spent the past decade talking to schools and parents about the effects of these differences. The point of this book is to examine how the psychology of boys affects their communication and our ability to get through to them. it's hard to quantify the extent of gender difference in communication and social behaviors; is it an average twenty-percent difference or five-percent difference? I'm not sure any scientist would be prepared to come to such a broad conclusion. The range of difference varies according to what kinds of cognitive abilities we might examine. Those who minimize the importance of differences point out that within group differences - among boys and girls - are greater than the difference between boys and girls. This is true. Like most scientists, I believe that the genders are much more alike than they are different. But this doesn't invalidate the fact that there are differences, and that they do matter.4 Again, it's hard to be precise, but let's suppose that the differences amount to less than five percent of the variance between genders. Then you can be sure that it will be that few percent that draws our attention. We might not like that fact, but pretending it isn't true helps no one. It's human nature to pay close attention to differences, perhaps for the very reason that we are so much more alike than different. If everyone on your street has a silver car, the small elements of a car's trim become increasingly important to recognizability, and in determining preferences. The more similar the general characteristic of things are, the more attention we give to whatever small differences might exist. Simply put, differences interest us.

Functionally speaking, it's small differences that change the way we act or perform a task. So, it's no surprise that boys' hearing is often perceived as being less effective than girls. By that I mean that they don't seem to hear information as well as girls, and tend to be more forgetful of what they do hear [reference]. One factor may be hormones. There's been some pretty good research on how hormones effect a person's short-term or working memory. For example, it appears that estrogen, a female hormone, is significantly more helpful in working memory ability than testosterone. This helps to explain why girls typically learn to read earlier and more efficiently than boys. When women experience a reduction in estrogen during menopause, they too have problems with working memory.5


Chapter Three

What's He Thinking?

For most of us, there's no lack of interest in talking to boys. The problem is that when we try, they are often nonresponsive, or at least under-responsive. Sometimes it's a battle just to get some eye contact. But why? What is all the resistance about? What are boys thinking when they stare back blankly, or avert eye contact altogether? Being guarded comes naturally to many, but that doesn't mean we can't understand boys' resistance, and then use those insights to create closeness and trust.

In this chapter I will identify the four major streams of thought that block boys from communicating with us. Y u may assume that these are distortions on the part of boys, but I encourage you to be honest with yourself as we work through them. Just because it is not your intention to pry or leverage information from your son, doesn't mean it isn't felt that way. The obstacles that hinder boys' communication come from the heart. They emanate from their deepest sources of anxiety, defensiveness, and irritation. Let's acknowledge that as far as boys are concerned, there are limits to parental "rights" to know. If we expect to have a fair chance of getting through to boys, we must recognize the defenses they employ, and why.

#1 You're Invading My Privacy

Perhaps the most common defensive thought for boys being pressed to communicate is "you're invading my personal space." They are even more likely to think along these lines when we try to communicate with them at inopportune times, such as when they are irritated, or caught up in something fun and stimulating, and unrelated to the topic of our query. You should know that boys have this thought without guilt or remorse. The premise of this conviction is that "my thoughts belong to me, and I'm not obligated to share them with you." This is true. Evidence of this conviction is present early in the lives of boys. Many will make their first sign, "Keep Out," before they are eight years-old.

The defensiveness of boys presupposes that we want to know their thoughts for some nefarious reason, like telling them they're wrong about something, or making them look foolish. Although that is likely not the case in most situations, boys often persist in protecting their privacy. At some point this sort of standoff becomes more about the meaning and significance of privacy, than it does about any specific private matter. It's that type of tension that defines many parent-child conversations, and which can turn into a power struggle about all sorts of things. How does this happen? Well, often our pursuit of answers to a question becomes unnecessarily intense, and emotionally overwhelming. For example, you read a negative comment from a teacher about your son not turning in homework, and want to immediately know, "why aren't you turning in your homework?" The answer is likely ordinary, but your son's expressionless, non-response suggests secrecy, and maybe a mischievous intent. You press harder, but he remains silent. Not because he has something specific to hide, but because he feels he has nothing to share. "How can this be? Why doesn't he see the urgency of the situation?"

The simple truth is many boys don't think of forgetfulness or the misplacing of homework as events worth reporting, or getting upset about. In fact, talking about such failings makes them feel bad. This explains one of their core beliefs: "if we don't talk about it, then it's not a problem." Or, "let's not waste time talking about trivial stuff, because it distracts me from more important things. I don't care if you're upset about the state of my sock drawer." We need to talk about more serious, interesting things if we want to hold boys' attention.

Table of Contents


Part I: Strategies and Techniques for Talking
Chapter 1: What Is Good Communication?
Chapter 2: Is He Hearing You?
Chapter 3: What's He Thinking?
Chapter 4: Great Beginnings
Chapter 5: Vocal Tone and Eye Contact

Part II: Deepening the Conversation
Chapter 6: Authenticity - Helping Boys Become Themselves
Chapter 7: Boys and Work
Chapter 8: Keys to Motivation
Chapter 9: Therapy with Boys

Appendix: Fifty Purposeful Work Ideas
About the Author
A Note about the Publisher

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Adam Cox unpacks in simple language the intricacies of communicating with boys. As a teacher of boys I learnt from every page – the book is an educational revelation resulting from remarkable face to face research, and provides an exceptional tool to help parents and teachers understand what makes boys tick. —David Anderson B.A, Dip TG, B.Ed, Cert. of Care, Sydney Australia IBSC Jarvis/Hawley Award Baltimore USA 2017

Cracking the Boy Code offers a thoughtful, accessible guide to developing meaningful communication with the boys in our lives. Adam Cox’s insights, grounded in practical wisdom cultivated over decades of clinical work with boys, provide readers with compelling possibilities for using non-verbal cues, tone of voice, hands-on activity, and empathetic listening to connect with boys in a manner both deep and enduring. Above all, Cracking the Boy Code recognizes that boys have a lot on their minds, and urges all of us to take them seriously as potential partners in dialogue. Dr. Cox’s latest work is both inspiring and instructive. —Dr. John M. Botti, Head of School, The Browning School

Adam Cox’s Cracking the Boy Code will become a go to resource for parents, caregivers, teachers and professionals. His deep understanding of boys and how to provide what they need from the adults in their lives, is reflected in each chapter with positive, sage advice and strategies. The real benefactors of this book will be boys, who have adults in their lives who read this book! —Mary Gauthier: Executive Director, Greenwood Centre for Teaching and Learning, Greenwood College School, Toronto

Adam Cox is surely the most important and original writer today on raising boys to be good men. Cracking the Boy Code is full of wisdom about the way boys communicate, think and relate. This is a powerful guide for parents, educators and counselors who strive to help boys be their best selves. —Bradley Adams is the past Executive Director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition and is now an educational consultant

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