Boys, like girls, crave connection and belonging. Like all of us, boys need friends, suffer when they don't believe they have any, and agonize over the ups and downs of relationships. Many adults believe that somehow boys need friends less than girls do; the myth of the stoic male has intruded even into childhood. In truth, though, no boy is an island; boys value their friends throughout childhood and adolescence and are happier and healthier when they have solid relationships with peers.
Action, Not Words
The differences in friendships between girls and boys is evident when you watch children interacting with each other. Imagine Amy and Sarah, who are best friends. They walk to school together each morning, sit on the same bench at recess, hug each other often, and always eat lunch together. While they sometimes play tetherball or do flips on the jungle gym, most of the time their heads are close together, and they are talking. They talk about everything and seem never to run out of conversation.
Jason and Lee are best friends, too—along with Adam, Rico, and Hunter. Jason talks sometimes with Lee about his parents' divorce because he knows that Lee's parents are divorced, too. But they talk in private; when the other guys are around, they play dodge ball or act out their favorite movie scenes. They would never touch each other, aside from the occasional jab or shove.
Despite the common belief that girls are better at relationships, most boys consider their friends a vital part of their lives. Boys may actually be better at maintaining friendships than girls are; a recent study of ten- to fifteen-year-old boys and girls found that girls' friendships are actually more fragile. Girls tend to say and do hurtful things to each other more frequently than boys, and girls are more hurt by the end of a friendship.
Parents rarely object when a daughter grabs a squirt gun and pretends to be a police officer. When a boy wants to dress a Barbie doll, however, parents may worry. It is normal for young children to play with all sorts of toys and to try on the opposite gender's roles to see how they fit.
Boys' friendships are usually built around active play. Boys are the living definition of the phrase "peer group"; they love games with rules, competition, and doing things together. Boys' play usually includes a fair amount of teasing, some of which can occasionally veer off into meanness, especially if they perceive another boy as weak or clumsy. Boys seem to enjoy, even need the opportunity to test themselves against others, and many lasting friendships begin in karate class or on the basketball court. Competence and skill are widely respected; being picked last for a team or left out altogether is an experience that can haunt a boy for years.
Teens and Friendship
As boys mature, friendships become even more important, and they frequently widen to include girls. During the teen years, friends can become the most important part of a boy's life—and a part from which he excludes his parents. Many parents discover that the exuberant boy who used to welcome them into his life with open arms becomes intensely private, even exclusive, during adolescence. Your son will always need connection, but now, in addition to connection with you, he needs connection with a group of friends who understand him, accept him, and share his perspective on the world.
The turbulence and confusion of being a teenager leads boys to form close bonds with friends. Underneath the incessant teasing and joking, there is the sense for many boys that a friend is someone who is "always there for me," someone he can trust implicitly. They may be partners in crime (and the occasional party) or partners in study, but the friendship of adolescent boys can run surprisingly deep.
You may feel a bit left out, even hurt, by the intensity of your son's involvement with and loyalty to his friends during his teen years. Chances are good that he will not talk to you as openly; after all, one of the tasks of adolescence is building an identity that is separate from parents. Pushing your son to talk, to open up, to share details of his personal life, or to include you in his activities usually makes matters worse. Patience, reasonable limits, and respect are key ingredients in a successful relationship with your teen son.
Though your son's relationships with friends can be turbulent, it is unwise to intervene. Instead, coach your son in the skills he will need to repair his relationships. Encourage him to take responsibility for his behavior, to understand his friends' emotions, and to look for ways to make a situation better. It's best to offer empathy than unwanted advice.