Allowing Teenage Boys to Love Their Friends

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

IT is occasionally true that the spark that ignites one’s grand, all-consuming work is struck early in life — even by happenstance.

Niobe Way was a teenager when her younger brother Lucan had a terrible falling out with his best friend. John lived just across the street; the two boys were inseparable. One day her mother caught the boys cutting up a treasured childhood rag doll. She read both of them the riot act and then some. John slunk off.

Seven, eight times after, Lucan would knock on John’s door. But he would always be told that John was not home or did not want to see him. The boys’ rupture shook Lucan deeply. Even as a happily married adult, he does not like to talk about, as Dr. Way recounts, “the boy who broke his heart.”

Recently, Dr. Way, now 47 and a professor at New York University, where she is an expert in developmental adolescent psychology focusing on male friendships, reflected on her brother’s experience those many years ago: “That’s when I first saw the significance of friendships for boys, in both my brother’s love and his sense of loss.”

New York City has been, in part, her laboratory. Her new book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection” (Harvard University Press), is already being taught at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, a private school in Manhattan, and is required reading for faculty at the Haverford School, a boys’ school near Philadelphia.

Dr. Way is also a Greenwich Village soccer mom of a son, 11, and daughter, 8, and says she views her son’s friendships with pride and poignancy: “I love watching how the boys relate to each other on and off the field. But I’m so aware that this will go away. He’s aware of the expectation that eventually, a boy has to choose between a boy friend and a girlfriend.”

Her book, compiled from 20 years of interviews in the United States and Nanjing, China, discusses how, for boys, the perception of a betrayal by a buddy is absolute because they feel “their intense vulnerability” has been exposed. “And they have no way to talk about it, to work it through. For boys, that’s terrifying.”

Also potentially dangerous: around ages 15 and 16, she noted, the suicide rate for American boys becomes about four times that of girls.

Dr. Way, a tall, impassioned talker who looks something like a hippie Ann-Margret, grew up in Paris; Oberlin, Ohio; and Palo Alto, Calif., and graduated from Berkeley and Harvard. She speaks of her findings as an outcry for boys.  Dr. Way, whose father is a classics scholar, is named for an ancient Queen of Thebes whose pride in her 14 children prompted the gods to slaughter them. In Niobe’s profound mourning, she turned to stone, a symbol of a mother forever stricken with grief.

Yet Dr. Way intends her work not to be a hand-wringer, but a call to action.

Despite stereotypes of teenage boys as grunting, emotionally tone-deaf creatures who bond over sports talk and risk-taking, she said, their need for intimate friendship is as potent as it is for girls. Boys in early adolescence would speak candidly about those friendships to Dr. Way and her researchers, acknowledging the importance of having a best friend who was both repository and guard for their most private feelings.

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