Close friendships for girls are pretty culturally acceptable. From kindergarten through high school to well into adulthood, girls who seek constant companionship with one another are not considered anything out of the ordinary. But as boys get into their teens, their attachments to one another are stigmatized as their close bonds culturally put their male relationships in close proximity to homosexuality. While the judgement from narrow-minded peers and hallway gossip may be out of parents’ grasps, Dr. Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, points out that parents unintentionally contribute to emotionally isolating their sons by stereotyping them.
While doing research for her book, Dr. Way interviewed boys for over 20 years about their friendships. All of her findings essentially determined the same thesis:
Despite stereotypes of teenage boys as grunting, emotionally tone-deaf creatures who bond over sports talk and risk-taking, she said, their need for intimate friendship is as potent as it is for girls. Boys in early adolescence would speak candidly about those friendships to Dr. Way and her researchers, acknowledging the importance of having a best friend who was both repository and guard for their most private feelings.
But as the boys grew older, the intensity of those relationships faded. Boys feared being seen as “too girly” or even gay for expressing attachments to one another, even just for feeling them.
Dr. Way points out that because of the emotional isolation many boys endure in their teenage years, boys aged 15 and 16 are four times more likely to commit suicide than teenage girls. She observes that parents contribute to the notion that boys don’t have emotional needs by subscribing to stereotypes about gender:
“Parents reinforce those stereotypes. They’ll tell me, ‘My son is supersensitive but he plays sports!’ ”
While an aggressive footballer can certainly be emotionally complex, well-intentioned parents often perpetuate the falsehood that these are mutually exclusive temperaments in their sons, simply because they’re boys. Such a narrow understanding of a child or teenager, anchored only in gender, fails to fully see them as well as their needs in their entirety.