As an adolescent girl, the social-emotional landscape was rocky, to say the least, when I was in middle school. Friend groups shifted overnight, and the literal race to find a seat next to the “popular girl” was intense. On the other hand, my brothers went into the neighborhood and played their games and came home sweaty and tired. Every now and then there would be a scrape or a scratch, but mainly of the skinned knee type, not the bruise-on-your-heart kind.
They made it seem so simple and blasé at the same time. When they were younger, there would be only two or three boys playing together. As they approached middle and high school, spending time in larger groups became the norm. Individual friendships did not appear to sustain and, unlike a girl’s critical “best friend,” my brothers had a large group of good friends, generally built around common interests such as sports or the geographical ease of living in close proximity. And yet, male friendships are deeply important throughout a man’s life.
As a middle school dean and teacher, I have more and more parents of middle school students reach out to me with questions about their son’s friendships. They describe more distance, more hurt feelings, and concern that their son is being left out and feeling lonely. There is reason to be concerned, but there are ways we can help our sons when it comes to bonding with their peers.
According to Jenny Cundiff and Karen Matthew’s 2018 research, Friends With Health Benefits, higher levels of adult happiness can be traced to close bonds with other males while growing up, including “lower blood pressure and body mass index 20 years later.”
Dr. Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, notes that “boys in early adolescence acknowledge the importance of having a best friend, but as they grow older, the intensity of those relationships faded.”
Dr. Way reports that the boys she interviewed were adept at describing the dichotomy between maintaining close male relationships while also being conscious of perceived notions regarding the appearance of “maleness.” As boys progress through the middle school years and into high school, they worry about being teased for being too close to another male friend.
That, combined with the fear of rejection from an intimate relationship, often keep friendships from developing further.
Contemporary demands on their time also pulls them away from close friendships. Most young adolescent boys do not have access to their own transportation or spending money, and mom-initiated “play dates” have become embarrassing. Additionally, in their self-conscious and often recalcitrant worlds, even asking to get together with a friend feels uncomfortable. They want to be independent and in-charge. Asking for a ride to Sean’s house doesn’t fit their idea of themselves. Online gaming has allowed boys to interact without being in physical proximity of one another, but it doesn’t create the same intimate connection I observe when boys have a chance to spend time together in person.
Do we, as parents, coach boys differently than girls about friendships? Do we spend less time addressing friendships with our sons because there is less drama surrounding their friendships compared to our daughters? Do we expect boys to just figure it out on their own? We discuss good sportsmanship, but is that the same as talking about and defining good friendship?
Friendship and relationship topics are often left to women to discuss--moms, sisters, aunts. As educators, we have observed that the most critical influence for a boy once he enters pre-adolescence is that of an adult male. Are we being intentional in our male role model conversations regarding the importance and care of male-male friendships? Do statements like “be tough” and “be a man” or questions like “Do you have a girlfriend yet?” send signals that scare boys away from connecting deeply with one another?
I recently had the opportunity to discuss how friendships work with a close group of seventh grade boys. Much like girls, they were chatty and eager to share their stories and constantly talked over one another. I asked them questions like “What makes a good friend? Do you spend time one-on-one or in a group? What do you do when you are together? What makes you not want to be friends with someone?” The boys were candid and open, sharing that they were drawn to other boys who “like the same things,” “can be myself around them,” “can be silly and goofy and they won’t tease me,” “share the same sense of humor,” but mainly the theme that emerged was trust. Over and over they described needing to feel that they could trust the other boy, that the other boy “has my back” and won’t share or make fun of vulnerabilities.
I inquired into the apparent shift away from singular friends to groups of friends in middle school and the boys had a visceral reaction. “Ew, that would be weird to hang out with just one other dude” and “It’s way more comfortable to hang out as a group.” They also talked about their desire to hang out with “just the guys” at times so that they can “be themselves” and not worry about what the girls think about them. They described the “posturing” that happens when middle school boys are around girls. They all said it’s more comfortable going to school with all boys because it creates an easier environment for them to connect and bond as strong friendships are encouraged.
As a middle school dean at an all boys’ school, I have seen sports and clubs help preserve and enhance these friendships, as they provide common ground for boys to share ideas, thoughts, feelings, and, perhaps most importantly today, time. Maybe that is also what makes an all boys’ middle school so special, so unique. Without feeling the need to choose between female and male relationships, without the pull of pairing off into “couples,” boys can develop meaningful and lasting relationships with their same-gender peers.
6 Ways to Encourage and Sustain Boys’ Friendships
1. Give them a ride
“Dad, can I get dropped off at Leo’s?” Just say yes. Give the kid a ride. Boys need to be together, in the same physical space, so they can talk, laugh, joke, punch shoulders, etc.
2. Leave them alone
“Mom, can Max, Duane, Khari, and I go to town?” Yes. Take them there. Leave them there. Come back in a few hours. It is critical that we allow young men to develop relationships on their own terms, in their own time, in their own way.
3. Understand their need to be together, without girls
“Honey, why don’t you invite your sister and her friends, too?” Not this time. At least, not every time. Allow your son time with other boys, without the need to jostle and strut in front of young ladies. They need this time together to form connections and build trust.
4. Respect their need for silence
“What did you and your friends do today?” You don’t really expect an answer, do you? At this age, it is critical to establishing the sacred ring of trust that will carry them through adolescence and into adults who are secure in their male friendships. The foundation and pathways for creating deep relationships start here. Do not expect them to tell on one another, share each other’s secrets, or generally offer up information about their friends. This would be in direct violation of the tacit pact that bonds young men.
5. Remember that it’s not about how often
“You haven’t seen Michael in a while, are you still friends?” Yes. They are. As boys mature, male relationships are less about quantity of interactions. The boys I met with had zero interest in how often they communicated via text or FaceTime, or even how often they saw each other once the friendship was established. Once the male bond is established, it remains strong even without frequent touchstones.
6. Set a good example
“Let’s meet up with the Johnsons.” Show young men how to spend time together. Invite your son to go with you to your brother’s house or out with another family. Allow them to see men interacting and bonding in a genuine way. Invite real topics of conversation into your home, not just discussions of sports or school work. Encourage an adult male to talk to your son about being a good friend, a good listener, and a supportive confidante.
Middle school is a tumultuous time for our students, and it was a social snake pit when I was 13. Despite the angst and drama of those years, when the dust settled and we all matured a little bit, I had found two forever friends. They are dear to my heart even now, thirty years later. I hope that we will be more intentional in today’s fast-paced world to allow our boys the time and space to continue to develop deep male friendships throughout adolescence and into adulthood.