The seventh-grade boys at George Jackson Academy in New York City snickered when developmental psychologist Niobe Way told them about a teen who loved his best friend. She asked them what was funny, and a student said, "The dude sounds gay."
Way expected that reaction. Challenging male stereotypes is part of her work with the Listening Project at New York University, which aims to help boys build their capacity for relationships. "What would you say if I told you that approximately 85 percent of boys feel this way about a friend during their teen years?" she asked. One boy said, "For real?" "I said, 'Yes, for real, boys want close friendships where they can share their secrets.' "
Two boys then shared that they had "broken up" after a fight. "They talked about it in front of the class," Way says. "All I did was give them permission. They didn't know it was normal."
"At that age, boys are really starting to get hit in the face with masculine expectations, and there's little wiggle room for what's acceptable," says Andrew Reiner, an educator who researches boys and vulnerability.
As a school counselor, I know this frustrates many kids. At my school, I recently asked several middle school boys to fill a "man box" with words that reflect cultural ideas about masculinity. "Competitive," "aggressive," "tough" and "sporty" all went into the box. Then I asked them to characterize themselves. Many of these descriptors — including "thoughtful," "self-aware" and "smart" — didn't make the cut for the box. "You're not supposed to care about grades or whether you can be yourself with friends," one boy said. "I think we all feel those things are important, but no one wants to risk getting a bad reaction."
We're limiting who boys can be, says Joseph Derrick Nelson, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College who researches how gender stereotypes influence boys' identity development. "We think they want to be left alone, but they very much want to rely on and support their friends."
If we want to lower the odds that they'll struggle with relationships or risky behavior down the road, we must show them how to achieve emotional intimacy. Here are nine ways parents can help boys defy stereotypes and form the close friendships they crave.
— Draw parallels to sports
Many moments of intimacy are accepted in the sports context. "When someone tells his teammate, 'That was a really great catch,' it's an expression of vulnerability, but I don't think boys know it," says Aziz Abdur-Ra'oof, a former NFL player who works with adolescent boys. "They just do it because they've dropped or caught a pass and know what that's like." He suggests that parents say, "You know, when your teammate didn't perform well during the basketball game, it was great how you went up to him and helped him."
Help your son generalize the concept beyond sports. You might say, "Jon, you know how you didn't like James when you first played basketball together, but then you realized he was a supportive teammate? When you approach people at school, think about that . . . and how it takes time to get to know someone," Abdur-Ra'oof says.
— Nurture their curiosity
Way asks the Listening Project participants to reflect on what's happening in their own friendships, then interview someone they love. "Almost all the boys pick their mothers," she says. The boys begin exploring the idea of friendship, asking questions such as "Who do you trust the most and why?" They learn how to be good listeners and follow up with deeper questions. She notes that people place a premium on empathy, but curiosity is just as important in a friendship. "With my kids, I'll say: 'I'm doing a project that asks people what they fear the most. What would you say scares you?' Then follow up with 'Oh, I didn't know you feared that,' " she says.
— Capitalize on moments when boys cry
A parent once asked Reiner whether she should be concerned that her son cries frequently. "I said: 'Crying is a window into us at our most vulnerable, and one of the few times you can sit down without pumping him full of questions about what he's feeling. He's clearly feeling sadness," he says. "We can say: 'You're feeling a strong emotion right now that you probably go out of your way to hide all the time. What's beneath the tears? If you're ready to talk, I'm here.' At the very least, you'll bear witness and let your son know he's not alone."
— Help them recognize friends' boundaries
"Boys love banter, friendly insults and trash talking, and this is really the root of a lot of boy issues, because there are different tolerance levels for sarcasm," says Ricky Stakem, a counselor at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland. "If a boy sees someone with a black eye and says, 'Your face is messed up,' that kid's feelings might get hurt even if the first kid isn't trying to be mean." Explain that if a friend looks upset or stops engaging, it's time to back down.
Purely physical interactions can be just as off-putting to boys, but it's hard to avoid them. "Middle school boys will never quietly shake your hand," Stakem says. "They'll slap your back or give you a piggyback ride down the hall. Boys need human touch as much as girls, but they don't want to be perceived as touchy-feely." A boy who doesn't like roughhousing might internalize his discomfort, says Jennifer Webster, director of school support and improvement for Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools. "If a couple kids tie a boy's shoelaces together, he might feel pressure to laugh, but not have a great day," she explains. Encourage sensitivity by asking your son whether he likes it when friends do something similar.
— Give them an emotional vocabulary
Help your son distinguish between feelings such as loneliness and disappointment. He can use that language to describe his friendships. "It's nothing magical," Nelson says. "Point out how a good friend treats him. Maybe they let him borrow their favorite video game, and that was their way of showing they trust him to care for it and return it," he says. Give him the words to express that he enjoyed spending time with someone. "It's okay to tell Billy, 'Hey, man, we had so much fun when we hung out today,'" Nelson says.
Sometimes, it takes being indirect to help boys think about friendships. Way will discuss her daughter's or her own friendship struggles in her son's presence and ask for his advice. "It's too touchy-feely for him to have these conversations about his own friendships," she says. Pop culture and literature can prompt discussion, too. Nelson suggests asking, "What do you think about these characters in relation to your friends?"
— Teach them to repair relationship rifts
Boys are more likely than girls to walk away when there's a hiccup in a friendship, Way says, and that can leak to their romantic life later. "Their girlfriend may do something, and the only solution they can think of is to leave," she says. Parents can model that rectifying situations takes work and vulnerability. "A father can say: 'I got into a big argument with a friend. Know what I did? I took a few deep breaths, then called him and said, 'Here's what I did wrong,' " Reiner says.
Some boys may need help avoiding physical conflicts, Nelson says. "All the norms around masculinity for boys are about physical toughness. 'You're not going to disrespect me. I'm going to shove you to show you that you can't do that again.' " Debrief after an incident. Ask your son to explain the sequence of events. What did the other student do, and how did your son respond? Then help him address the why. You can say, "You pushed him, and he fell — what was that about?"
— Set rules for social media and gaming
Parents are often baffled that boys can feel an intimate connection with people they know only from gaming and chatrooms, says Adam Pletter, a psychologist and founder of iParent101. Online interactions do hit on some basic friendship-building skills, he notes, but they neglect others. "They're sharing, compromising, negotiating, feeling connected and validated," he explains, "but eye contact, body language and face-to-face skills are completely eliminated when you're typing." Set limits and ensure that your son engages with peers in person. Pletter notes that it's never too late to set clear expectations regarding device use during sleepovers, play dates, car pools and other social scenarios.
— Challenge the definition of a 'real man'
Talk about masculine expectations, Nelson says. "Particularly for low-income black and Latino boys, so much of their physical safety is dependent on whether they're perceived as weak. I've spoken to black fathers who tell their boys: 'It's okay for you to cry at home, but not at the park. At home, you're loved, you're safe.' "
You may need to re-examine your own beliefs. "If parents are locked into this notion of a man following this traditional script, how can they raise a son who has deeper emotional awareness?" Reiner says. Fathers, especially, should tell their son when they've suffered a disappointment.
— Be physically demonstrative
"I hug my 12-year-old son just like I hug my girls, but I also show him that it's okay to put your arm around someone," says William Parker, the executive director of the Oklahoma Middle Level Education Association. "I hug the guys I know. I want my son to grow up knowing that you can have deep, affectionate friendships that don't have to be about romance."
Phyllis Fagell is the counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Maryland. She tweets @Pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.