The loss of close-knit guy friendships in middle school may lead to more than loneliness. “If you live in a culture in which the definition of manhood is independence and autonomy and where we aren’t valuing our social and emotional sides,” asks Way, “is it so surprising that we have this culture of bullying and cyberbullying and people being so brutal to each other?”
We agree. But encouraging authentic relationships at a time of life when kids just want to fit in is no small challenge. Here are a few friendship-encouraging strategies recommended by experts—and that would possibly be recommended by our sons, if they were ever willing to talk about this.
Don’t confuse popularity with friendship. If your son has one friend in whom he can confide, and who he trusts won’t talk behind his back, that’s all he needs. Research shows that to get all the benefits of friendship, one is the magic number. Don’t crusade for him to acquire friends the way he used to collect Pokémon cards.
Don’t freak out if your son doesn’t have friends from time to time. In his study of 350 kids, Bukowksi found that every single one went through a period when he had no friends. “There is going to be turnover in friendships,” says Bukowski. “These downtimes are a chance for parents to encourage the importance of relationships and take stock.” And so …
Talk about friendship. Even though most boys don’t want to have a heavy sit-down about their buddies, you can still talk about the importance of friendship in a way that will get your point across. Bukowski and Way both suggest talking about your own friendships: how much they mean to you; what disappoints you. Just don’t overshare! A simple, “I really care about my friendship with Mike and it bums me out when he doesn’t return my emails” will do. Elizabeth had great success recently when she told her sons that a friend is someone who can keep your secrets and doesn’t treat you well one day and then turn on you the next. Both of her sons told her which boys they knew who fit this description. And then they also were able to say which kids didn’t and how it makes them feel when that happens.
Give him a chance to bond over things he loves. You can’t stage-manage a middle schooler’s friendships they way you could when he was in elementary school. But you can provide boys with opportunities to do things with kids who share their interests—filmmaking classes, batting practice, hip-hop. But don’t think that just because your kid has met another LEGO robotics nut that your work is done. “One of the challenges for middle school boys is to change their friendship relationships from being activity based into experiences that are more relational,” says Bukowski. “If a 7th grade boy is playing basketball together with his friends, he should be aware that he shouldn’t gloat about it if he’s better than his friend. Boys who are friends compete with each other, but they can manage that competition.” If your son has a hard time not lording his greatness over others, Bukowski recommends watching the ESPN TV show Pardon the Interruption, which pits two sports reporters against each other to hash out the issues of the day. “They fight about everything,” he says. “But it never becomes personal. You always have the sense that they love each other.”
And how, over a year later, have our boys fared? Elizabeth’s son did make friends at his new school while also staying close to a few guys he’s known since he was little. He’s bugging her about seeing The Hunger Games with his pals on the day it’s released, is excited about being on the middle school tennis team, and is going to camp with four classmates this summer. Josh’s son took up the electric bass and made friends through his school’s jazz band. He and his friends have co-ed parties, go ice skating together, and never stop IMing. Proving, as is always the case with parenting, that solving one concern just begets another.