Headlocks, play fighting and firing sarcastic comments at one another may not look like friendship but to many boys these traits are key aspects of their strongest bonds with friends.
Researcher and award-winning author Rosalind Wiseman says boys thrive having strong friendships, however, sometimes parents do not understand elements of healthy friendships for their sons.
“It’s not a conscious decision on our part, but we often assume that girls not only have closer, better friendships with each other but also need them more than boys,” she writes in her book Masterminds and Wingmen.
“These assumptions are wrong. Behind boys’ arguments and put downs is a complicated social system in which friendships are deeply valued…if you look and listen beyond the put downs, yelling and laughing, boys friendship dynamics are just as complex and nuanced as those of girls,” she adds.
New York University Developmental Psychology Professor and researcher Niobe Way broke ground with her grassroots research into boys’ friendships, detailed in her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.
In a recent interview for NYU she says boys are in great need of positive, healthy friendships.
“…boys need healthy relationships, this means being able to feel vulnerable, being able to share…they are explicitly talking about wanting to be vulnerable with another young man, being cared for in that way; in ways that allow them to feel very close,” Prof. Way says.
She says research shows boys have “remarkable emotional acuity” from a young age – meaning they are able to express what they want and what they need to thrive.
“…we don’t have to teach it to them, we don’t have to give them a curriculum on it, they naturally have it…our challenge then is not to teach it to boys, but actually nurture it and that’s a much easier task, to try to nourish it than to try to teach something that’s fundamentally human.”
She says her own research showed the amazing capacity of boys to effectively talk about what they need most in terms of friendships.
“And we need to listen to them carefully and nurture that capacity.”
She encourages parents to help their sons nurture friendships from a young age and make strong connections with others.
“It’s not only about helping our children have friendships but also maintaining these friendships.”
Prof. Way offered some simple tips to helping boys build and maintain positive friendships, including parents talking to sons about their own friendships and including boys’ friends in family activities.
She says boys can learn about friendships from their parents’ experiences. Parents do not have to go into finer details about friendship issues but rather chat about their friendships and how their relationships change, grow or dissolve in time.
Prof. Way also encourages parents to include their sons’ friends in family activities, from organising play dates to sleep overs and inviting friends on family holidays; to build and maintain strong connections with friends for their sons.
“…figure out opportunities you can do with the child so their friendships are really nourished. If you start that at a very young age then it becomes much easier in adolescence when it can be a tougher time in terms of communication, that your sons will make good choices.”
“Ultimately for parents…it’s really about helping our children make good choices.”
“And how do we help them make good choices? By actually allowing them their full humanity to flourish, their full emotional capacity to flourish and that allows them to make better choices than children who are restricted to not feeling, not crying, not expressing things that are more sensitive and vulnerable, that really shuts down their humanity.”
One research participant in Ms Wiseman’s study summed up his friendships simply;
“I know it looks like we are insane and loud…okay we are really loud. And we can be really rude, and our parents don’t even hear how we usually talk to each other. But I’d do anything for my friends. I can’t really explain the bond we have, but it’s deep…”