by Jennifer Vander Klipp

It may seem like a long time ago (if you look at how big—and dare I say, smelly—your teen’s feet have gotten compared to those kissable baby toes) that your teenager was a toddler, but I bet you remember what his first word was. Sometimes it’s mama or dada or the dog’s name or a favorite toy or food. But we eagerly awaited that first word. Even my autistic son, who often considers words unnecessary, still communicated to us.

And if your son had an older sister, you might have discovered like we did that she often spoke for her brother and told us what he needed. However it happened, we valued that communication with our children.

When our children are young we spend a lot of time telling them what to do and what not to do. It’s not surprising that many toddlers’ first word is No! They hear it all the time!

As our boys grow into teenagers and young men, our words need to change to reflect this growth. Our words need to be less about directing and more about coaching. Less about what to do and more about how to do it.

Proverbs 18:21 tell us the power of life and death is in the tongue. I think we as parents know this in an intellectual way, but unless we’re intentional about it, our day-to-day words may not reflect this value.

Considering teen boys don’t converse in much more than grunts, here are three tips that can help you connect with your boys in a way that reflects their growing independence.

  1. Praise what makes them unique

With four boys in the house, it’s easy to lump them all together. But God made each one of them uniquely and with a purpose. I try to notice and acknowledge these differences by saying things like: “That’s cool! I never would have thought of doing that. I love how your mind works.” Or I name a specific attribute about them that I appreciate. On occasion that has opened the door to further conversation about something that boy is really interested in or how he came to that conclusion. Even if no great conversational moment happens, their eyes light up and their shoulders straighten when someone notices them as a unique individual.

  1. Use activity to communicate

My youngest stepson isn’t as athletically inclined as his older brothers, but he loves to play basketball. So my husband takes every opportunity to shoot hoops with him. Far more words flow during a game of Horse than they would while sitting around the dinner table. Throw a ball around, work on a house project, wash the car…boys are far more likely to talk when they are physically engaged.

  1. Ask their input

As parents, we get in the habit of telling our kids what they’re going to do and what’s going to happen. But as our kids get older, it’s good to find opportunities to let them make choices. Things like what movie to get, what to have for dinner (with their help making it!), a family activity, or a vacation spot. You always have ultimate veto power, but I find the kids come up with things far simpler and down to earth than I would have thought. Teaching them that their voice and opinions matter and have value (even if you don’t end up using their suggestion) lays the foundation for making good decisions when they are out on their own.

Speak life into your boys. Encourage them. Praise their uniqueness. Challenge them to find their God-given passion. There aren’t too many more years until our opportunities to influence them on a day-to-day basis will be gone. But our words will have a lasting impact on them.

Even if all we get is a grunt in return.