Recently both of our oldest sons switched schools for junior high. While in many ways each of their transitions were smooth, both of us were surprised that these two terrific, well-adjusted, handsome (natch) boys seemed at first—at least to their parents—to have no friends.
We reacted to this information in manners befitting our personalities. Josh gently encouraged his son to pick up the phone and call his elementary-school pals; his son resisted, saying he wanted to move on. Elizabeth, on the other hand, went full-on helicopter. After a call to her son’s adviser revealed the not-encouraging fact that he’d been eating lunch with that same adviser, she phoned the school counselor, who assured her that her son wasn’t roaming the halls by himself and that this temporary friendlessness was in the range of normal, especially for introverted boys like her son. “He’s still most likely putting all his energy into getting to the right classroom for each class, not to mention finding the bathroom,” she said. Needless to say, soon Elizabeth was asking her son for the names of everyone he ate lunch with, much to her son’s disgust.
We remember from our own treacherous passages through junior high how strong friendships can ease the pain of those change-filled years. Josh and his best friend from childhood, Dooley, lived on the same street and attended the same middle school. Though they both made other friends, the two were joined at the shoulder most days from breakfast, which Josh often ate at Dooley's house (where Carnation Breakfast Drinks were an accepted alternative to oatmeal), through dinner, which Dooley often ate at Josh's father's house (where reading a Tintin book at the table was by no means considered rude).
In fact, decades of research have shown that kids with close friendships are healthier, do better in school, and don’t get bullied as often. Friendships also can minimize the negative impacts of family problems and, according to Dr. William M. Bukowski, a psychologist who researches friendships at Concordia University in Montreal, make kids less anxious about trying new things. In one University of Virginia study, researchers placed students wearing heavy backpacks at the base of a hill and asked them to estimate its steepness. The participants who stood next to a friend gave lower estimates than those who were alone.
Perhaps most important, friendships can validate kids in a way that sticks more than their parents’ You rock! praise. “Kids know that parents are supposed to love their children,” says Bukowski. “But when someone shows you affection who doesn’t have to, it has a stronger effect.”
Given these benefits, it makes sense that we parents of boys should see the middle school years as an opportunity to encourage a life-long appreciation for friendship. Unfortunately, for boys growing up today, maturity is mostly defined as being cool and independent. You’re not supposed to need a relationship with anyone. In fact, the very idea of having a “relationship” with a guy friend, much less talking about it, seems icky to many boys.
“You have to shift the whole game and say that maturity should be defined as having quality, mutually supportive healthy relationships,” says Niobe Way, an NYU psychology professor. Way’s recent book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, shreds the assumption many parents make that boys can take or leave their pals. Instead, her research shows that boys actually love their guy friends, and have the instinctive intelligence to be able to talk about those attachments. “We think boys are emotional clods who don’t know how to express their feelings,” says Way. “What I hear from listening to boys for almost 20 years is that they have an incredible astuteness about the emotional world. It’s not just that they can say they love a friend, but they can say things with more nuance, like ‘I can act like I’m mad but I’m really hurt.’ ”
Unfortunately, according to Way and other researchers, intimacy between boys vanishes as they progress through high school, in part because many boys this age are afraid of acting in a way that makes them seem girlish or gay. (Jocks, on the other hand, can openly show affection with their guy friends—especially on the playing field—because their popularity and status as manly men insulates them from being harassed.) It’s a loss that the boys Way interviewed mourn intensely and still grieve as adults. Since publishing her book, Way says she’s been surprised by all the letters she’s received from grown men telling her how much they missed their own boyhood chums.