Understanding Boys’ Friendships
Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection has been out a few months and, I admit, I let it slip down the priorities list. Really, it got buried.
Thanks to New York Times writer Jan Hoffman for prompting me- through yesterday’s article, “Allowing Teenage Boys to Love Their Friends“- to pull Vanna Le’s The New Yorker interview with Way up and do some reading and sharing.
I don’t often make such claims, but Way’s work is important for anyone who has a boy(s) in the family and especially those of us involved with boarding schools- especially boys schools.
Boys are as nuanced as they come. It seems that boys and men want a richness of life that we culturally negate.
Quickly, Way’s research and writing examines boy’s male friendships, their intensity and importance, and the ways that our culture censures and negates male friendships as the boys grow through adolescence. It’s fascinating to learn that the genesis of Way’s life-long, professional research came through watching one of her younger brother’s friendships.
From The New Yorker:
My interest in boys’ development grew out of listening to my younger brothers and the boys I met while working as a counselor. I became fascinated by the discrepancy between the stereotypes of boys and what boys actually sounded like. I wanted to learn about their social and emotional developments, particularly during adolescence—the age during which boys are most heavily stereotyped as stoic and only interested in one thing (i.e., sex). I discovered that while boys do sound and act like stereotypes at times, they also often implicitly challenge such stereotypes especially in the context of their closest male friendships.
Boys openly expressed to us their love for their friends and emphasized that sharing “deep” secrets was the most important aspect of their closest male friendships. They also told us that they would go “wacko” without these friends. I realized that these patterns among boys have been ignored by the larger culture because such expressions are considered by this culture as girlish and gay. Thus, to admit that boys have or want emotionally intimate male friendships, or to reveal their emotional sensitivity, is to implicitly accuse them of being gay. Rather than questioning why emotional sensitivity and emotionally intimate friendships are given a sex (female) and a sexuality (gay), we simply ignore boys’ friendships and the ways in which they do not fit our gender stereotypes.(TNY)
From Hoffman’s NYT piece:
“…‘I love watching how the boys relate to each other on and off the field. But I’m so aware that this will go away. He’s aware of the expectation that eventually, a boy has to choose between a boy friend and a girlfriend.’ (Way)
Her book, compiled from 20 years of interviews in the United States and Nanjing, China, discusses how, for boys, the perception of a betrayal by a buddy is absolute because they feel ‘their intense vulnerability’ has been exposed. ‘And they have no way to talk about it, to work it through. For boys, that’s terrifying.’
Also potentially dangerous: around ages 15 and 16, she noted, the suicide rate for American boys becomes about four times that of girls.”(NYT)
More from The New Yorker:
What do boys want in friendships (with other boys)? How does that change as they grow older?
Boys want “deep depth” friendships with other boys in which secrets are shared, trust is total, and they have the confidence that their friend will not betray them or laugh at them when they are feeling vulnerable. These themes of intimacy are particularly evident during early and middle adolescence. During late adolescence, however, boys begin to lose their closest male friendships, become more distrustful of their male peers, and in some cases, become less willing to be emotionally expressive. They start sounding, in other words, like gender stereotypes. When they talk about intimacy that might remain in their closest male friendships, they use the expression “no homo” to underscore their heterosexual status. Questions about close friendships from the interviewers become, for the boys during late adolescence, questions about sexuality. Many of the boys in our studies spoke about feelings of loneliness and isolation during late adolescence and how they missed their formerly close male friendships. We heard these patterns of loss and distrust right at the moment in development that the rates of suicide among boys in the United States jumps up to become four times the rate of girls. (TNY)
And finally, from the New York Times:
“…Dr. Way intends her work not to be a hand-wringer, but a call to action…
…’This is not some academic read I’m doing. The boys are aware of the power of their relationships…’”(NYT)