Friends and boys’ peer relationships

The meaning of friendship

Friendship may well be the most important social relationship we have. Friendship is voluntary and non-hierarchical. Friends have mutual goodwill toward one another, they depend on each other, and still sustain their independence.

Friendships are typically created by communicating a mutual interest. Children may connect through hobbies such as football or videogames, or through passions like horses or Pokémon. Positivity adds to interest and liking in initial encounters.

Friends of all genders report talking and enjoying each other’s company as their favourite thing to do. Friendships are further developed by self-disclosure, reciprocity of support, and mutual trust. Alike friendships are significantly associated with higher levels of school engagement and performance, greater self-esteem, and lower levels of depression.

There is enormous value in being accepted by others the way we are. Furthermore, friends help us become who we are. They add meaning to our lives, quite literally. The shared experiences of friends become stories –narratives–, which they then retell about their friendship. The narrative strengthens the bond and makes the friendship unique

 

Boys’ friendships

Against the common stereotype boys do form deep connections with friends from early childhood to adolescence. We may not see boys’ relational capabilities as clearly as girls’ since we do not expect to see them. Similarly, there is a misconception to view boys’ gender socialization as one-way influence that makes boys conform to cultural messages of patriarchal masculinity. Boys are in fact socially adaptive and creative in negotiating their sense of self.

Studies show that boys have the ability to thoughtfully self-reflect and understand the sensitivities of interpersonal relationships. They are apt at detecting expectations of gendered ideals such as roughness and indifference. Boys can challenge such conventions of masculinities that constrain them but they need the support of their friends to do so. Unless vulnerability is seen as a strength and essential for connection, we are making it more difficult for boys to form and enjoy the benefits of close relationships.

The cultural norms of maturity for boys expect autonomy without the need for emotional support. For them, it too often looks like disconnection, alienation, and loneliness. Consequently, adolescent boys report missing their close ties deeply and suffer greatly the loss of a trusted friend. Meaningful relationships in which boys feel validated are key in building boys’ resilience and resistance of social pressures.

 

Support for friendship

Adults can support children staying connected with their friends. Since guardians determine children’s schedules, location of residence, and even hobbies, they can be active in creating opportunities for children to spend time together as friends. If you move to a different area make playdates, videocalls, send cards or drawings, recount the story of the friendship, and attend birthday parties. Additionally, schools have the power to not only influence the academic achievements but also the quality of their students’ friendships.

If you are concerned about a child’s peer relationships, or the lack of, be mindful not to communicate blame or shame about them keeping to themselves. Listen carefully and avoid downplaying the experience. Support the child’s interests and boost their enjoyment of the chosen activities. Later you can encourage them to seek likeminded others. The great thing about friendship is that you can keep creating them throughout your life.

 

Dr Ira A. Virtanen
Tampere University
Finland

Photo: Jonne Renvall.

 

References

Chu, Judy Y. (2018). Boys’ nature, boys culture, and the crisis of connection. In Niobe Way, Alisha Ali, Carol Gilligan & Perdo Noguera (Eds.), The crisis of connection: Roots, consequences, and solutions (pp. 88–105). NYU.

Rawlins, William K. (2009). The compass of friendship: Narratives, identities, and dialogues. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Virtanen, Ira A. (2015). Supportive communication in Finnish men’s friendships. Tampere University. http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-44-9702-5

Virtanen, Ira A. (2018). Nuorten miesten haavoittuvuus ja tuki ystävyyssuhteissa. In Antti Kivijärvi, Tuija Huuki & Harry Lunabba (Eds.), Poikatutkimus (pp. 239–260). Tampere: Vastapaino. 

Way, Niobe. (2011). Deep secrets: Boys’ friendships and the crisis of connection. Harvard University Press.

Way, Niobe & Chu, Judy Y. (Eds.) (2004). Adolescent boys: Exploring diverse cultures of boyhood. NYU.