9 ways to help boys form the close friendships they crave

Delphine Lee for The Washington Post

This article was originally published in The Washington Post.

The seventh-grade boys at George Jackson Academy in New York City snickered when developmental psychologist Niobe Way told them about a teen who loved his best friend. She asked them what was funny, and a student said, “The dude sounds gay.”

Way expected that reaction. Challenging male stereotypes is part of her work with the Listening Project at New York University, which aims to help boys build their capacity for relationships. “What would you say if I told you that approximately 85 percent of boys feel this way about a friend during their teen years?” she asked. One boy said, “For real?” “I said, ‘Yes, for real, boys want close friendships where they can share their secrets.’ ”

Two boys then shared that they had “broken up” after a fight. “They talked about it in front of the class,” Way says. “All I did was give them permission. They didn’t know it was normal.”

“At that age, boys are really starting to get hit in the face with masculine expectations, and there’s little wiggle room for what’s acceptable,” says Andrew Reiner, an educator who researches boys and vulnerability.

As a school counselor, I know this frustrates many kids. At my school, I recently asked several middle school boys to fill a “man box” with words that reflect cultural ideas about masculinity. “Competitive,” “aggressive,” “tough” and “sporty” all went into the box. Then I asked them to characterize themselves. Many of these descriptors — including “thoughtful,” “self-aware” and “smart” — didn’t make the cut for the box. “You’re not supposed to care about grades or whether you can be yourself with friends,” one boy said. “I think we all feel those things are important, but no one wants to risk getting a bad reaction.”

We’re limiting who boys can be, says Joseph Derrick Nelson, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College who researches how gender stereotypes influence boys’ identity development. “We think they want to be left alone, but they very much want to rely on and support their friends.”

If we want to lower the odds that they’ll struggle with relationships or risky behavior down the road, we must show them how to achieve emotional intimacy. Here are nine ways parents can help boys defy stereotypes and form the close friendships they crave.

Draw parallels to sports

Many moments of intimacy are accepted in the sports context. “When someone tells his teammate, ‘That was a really great catch,’ it’s an expression of vulnerability, but I don’t think boys know it,” says Aziz Abdur-Ra’oof, a former NFL player who works with adolescent boys. “They just do it because they’ve dropped or caught a pass and know what that’s like.” He suggests that parents say, “You know, when your teammate didn’t perform well during the basketball game, it was great how you went up to him and helped him.”

Help your son generalize the concept beyond sports. You might say, “Jon, you know how you didn’t like James when you first played basketball together, but then you realized he was a supportive teammate? When you approach people at school, think about that . . . and how it takes time to get to know someone,” Abdur-Ra’oof says.

Nurture their curiosity

Way asks the Listening Project participants to reflect on what’s happening in their own friendships, then interview someone they love. “Almost all the boys pick their mothers,” she says. The boys begin exploring the idea of friendship, asking questions such as “Who do you trust the most and why?” They learn how to be good listeners and follow up with deeper questions. She notes that people place a premium on empathy, but curiosity is just as important in a friendship. “With my kids, I’ll say: ‘I’m doing a project that asks people what they fear the most. What would you say scares you?’ Then follow up with ‘Oh, I didn’t know you feared that,’ ” she says.

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