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May 17, 2018
The secret, complex world of boys’ friendships, and how parents can navigate it
By Heidi Stevens
My son’s friendships are far more complicated than my daughter’s.
I was unprepared for this, since the “boys are simpler” refrain started the moment I began telling people, nine years ago, that the baby in my stomach was, in fact, a boy.
My desk is filled with books about mean girls and how not to raise one. Girls and their friendships are endlessly dissected and debated and turned into pop culture touchstones. Boys’ friendships fly mostly under the radar.
My daughter, 12, has a delightful core of solid, loyal friends who have one another’s backs and cheer one another on and lift one another’s spirits during hard times. I haven’t had to help her navigate a lot of friend drama — which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist; it just hasn’t surfaced much in her world. (When/if it does: I’m ready!)
Meanwhile my son, 8, comes home with a lot of drama.
Football games that start as playground fun and turn into a battle for the hearts and minds of the entire third grade. Debates over sports minutiae that devolve into screaming matches. Screaming matches that devolve into tears.
If the rest of the family is occupied and we’re all alone at dinner, he tells me all about it. If other family members are home, he saves it until bedtime.
Without divulging a whole bunch of details, I’ll just say this: It really gets to him.
I think a lot, as he and I are talking, about psychologist Wendy Mogel’s observations in her latest book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen” (Scribner), about boys my son’s age.
“All young boys face the same existential questions,” Mogel writes. “How can I be myself without getting into trouble? Does anyone consider me a hero? What do I contribute to this family that someone else doesn’t already contribute better?”
I wondered, as I read her book, whether those existential questions translate to boys’ friendships, and I called Mogel to ask her as much.
“I never used to hear this,” she told me, “and now I hear it all the time.”
In her 35 years in private practice and myriad public appearances, Mogel routinely fielded questions from parents trying to help their daughters navigate the shark-infested waters of elementary school, middle school, high school. Now, she told me, she hears almost exclusively from parents of boys, particularly boys ages 7-11.
“The shift,” she said, “has stunned me.”
She recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times: “Should We Speak to Little Boys as We Do Little Dogs?”
“After a long car trip we consider it natural for a puppy to grumblebark, run in circles, maybe even nip a bit,” she wrote. “We don’t get mad at him for needing to shake off that energy. We ask, ‘Who’s a good boy?’ in a tone that the dog understands perfectly.
“Contrast that with the way we treat children after they have been similarly cooped up in a day of classes, activities and homework,” she continued. “We bark instructions at them: Finish your math problems — and make sure you show your work! Put away that iPad! Get ready for bed!”
Boys, Mogel contends, bristle at expectations that they quiet their bodies and minds and mouths and follow the rules of a traditional school day, particularly a modern school day with its increased reliance on standardized testing and decreased gym and recess time. They long to “skylark,” a word she stumbled upon in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
“They’re these darling little elves who are kind of on lockdown at school and at home,” she said. “Even on teams, there’s a coach and there are rules. All day long they’re figuring out how to talk to their teachers and talk to their buddies and fit in the cool crowd, and they’re hungry and they’re frustrated and they’re tired.”
No wonder their friendships are fraught. So other than feed them and put them to bed at a reasonable hour, what’s a mom to do?
“I say to parents, ‘What percent of your conversations with your son are reminding, complaining, hurrying, chastising?’” Mogel said. “And what percent is you cherishing him?”
I love that question.
“Then I say, ‘If you ask his teachers, would they say he’s eating lunch all by himself? Does he seem withdrawn? Is he enthusiastic about anything? Is his step lively?’”
No. No. Yes. Yes.
I’m not worried about his emotional state. I just want him to learn to navigate his friendships in a way that’s both healthy and sustainable.
“Listen compassionately and respectfully, and don’t give much advice,” Mogel said. “Ask him: ‘What are you considering doing? Have you been in this situation before? What did you try? Did it work? What might you try now?’ Really hand it back to his wisdom.”
Give him a chance to be a hero and an expert — two things boys love — in his own life story.
If possible, she said, we should give our sons the opportunity to be the older boy in a group. Hang out with cousins, neighbors, friends’ kids who are younger and smaller, and who look up to our little guys as role models — and give them reason to behave as such.
We should make sure, she added, our sons have plenty of loving, friendly men in their lives. If that’s dad, great. If it’s not, tap grandpa. An uncle. A coach. A barber.
“Surround them with people who celebrate their identity and their dignity and their worth and their beauty,” she said.
That’s an assignment I relish. And one I strongly believe he and all the people in his life — partners, colleagues, family members, friends — will benefit from richly.
May 17, 2018