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.
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.