Moms: Helping Boys Form Deep Friendships

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Research shows boys crave and can establish strong friendships, but cultural bias may create barriers to those desires. So how can parents help boys develop healthy long-lasting friendships? Host Michel Martin speaks with Tell Me More's regular parenting contributors Leslie Morgan Steiner and Jolene Ivey, and Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michele Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

And now, as kids around the country are heading back to school, we wanted to talk about making friends. On the one hand, most people know that making and keeping friends can be a make-or-break part of the school experience, but that often doesn't come easy, especially for boys.

But research shows that boys have a deep yearning for intimacy with other boys, so how can parents teach their boys to develop good friendships and keep those friendships? Can they teach that and should they even try?

To help us out, we've called upon Niobe Way, author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection." She is also a professor of applied psychology at New York University.

Also with us are regular moms contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Jolene Ivey. Among them, they have six boys.

So welcome, ladies, and moms. Thank you all so much for joining us.

NIOBE WAY: Hey, Michel.

JOLENE IVEY: Glad to be here.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Very nice to be here.

MARTIN: Niobe, you spent 20 years researching how boys communicate and relate to one another. First, I wanted to ask, how did you get interested in that? And what do you think is the biggest disconnect between the way boys really want to relate to each other and the way their relationships are often viewed?

WAY: Well, it really stemmed from being a counselor. I was a high school counselor in the late '80s and I spent my days listening to teenagers, teenage girls and boys, and it really struck me how much boys were talking about their friendships, and I - it really surprised me because I expected them to be talking about their girlfriends or maybe their parents or maybe their teachers. But they really were almost consumed with talking about their friendships and the ins and outs of their friendships. And it really was in such a contrast from what sort of popular culture frames boys and certainly boys' friendships.

And the second influence was that I have two younger brothers. I listened to them, nosing in on their conversations as they grew up. And so listening to my brothers, as well as counseling hundreds of teenagers, really led me to this fascination with boys' friendships in particular, and then it became a lifelong passion, really, to really understand boys' relationships and how to foster these relationships and how to raise healthy, happy men.

MARTIN: Okay. So I'm wondering if we have actually eight boys among the people in this conversation. We have eight boys, but Jolene, you wear the crown. You have five, you know, of the eight.

And I understand that you've seen this with your boys. In fact, one of the things you were telling us is that, on the one hand your boys - many of them have some very deep friendships. On the other hand, they're very concerned that their friendships not be mischaracterized as being sexual. Can you talk a little bit about that?

IVEY: You mean the no homo comment?

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

IVEY: Yeah. My 16-year-old. He loves to talk about his best friend, who just went off to college. His best friend's two years older than he is. Whenever they would talk about each other, they would always say, you know, how much they love each other, how close they were, but Julian would always say, but no homo. On the other hand...

MARTIN: And I just want to emphasize that that's not meant as a slur.

IVEY: It's not at all.

MARTIN: It's meant to clarify.

IVEY: Especially not from Julian, because he went into puberty backstage on Broadway, so he says he's totally cool with gay people. He totally doesn't care. And he's very confident and comfortable with himself. He'll wear a pink shirt in a heartbeat if it looks good on him, he doesn't care. So he's one of those people that Niobe referred to as being good looking, popular, a confident person, and able to communicate his feelings as a result.

MARTIN: Niobe, is that common, though, that this desire to feel a need to distinguish between kind of a deep intimate friendship and a homosexual relationship? Is that something that you've found? And is that more common now than it was when you first started doing this research?

WAY: You know, it's a hard thing to say because what we see is we see those patterns. The no homo really comes out in their interviews starting when they're about 15, 16, 17, and we do not hear it in the early stages of adolescence, when they're 13, 14 years old.

And what's amazing to me is that, you know, we all live in a culture in which simply a close relationship between two boys, emotionally close at 16, we immediately sexualize it. We allow girls to have close friendships and we don't make it into something that's about sexuality or about, you know, somehow not being an independent, strong person.

MARTIN: Okay.

WAY: We put - go ahead.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying, but before we just move on from this, and bring Leslie into the conversation, I do want to emphasize this is perhaps a marker of that.

You saw that earlier this month PBS felt compelled to announce that Bert and Ernie, the Muppets characters, are not gay. I'm just going to play a short clip from an ABC News report about that for people who may wonder, like, why are we making a big deal of this. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bert and Ernie. A lot of people are trying to make them a couple. There's a whole Internet push to get Bert and Ernie married. So "Sesame Street" has felt that they've got to come out and address this controversy. They've said Bert and Ernie are best friends. They remain puppets, and as such, do not have a sexual orientation.

MARTIN: Jolene, you were going to say something briefly about that?

IVEY: Yeah. Just because up until that point, I have to say I wasn't really buying into the book. I really wasn't buying into the premise of society views boys differently when it comes to friendships, because I just didn't see it myself. But as soon as the Bert and Ernie announcement came out, I said I was so wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, big of you to admit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Leslie, what about your 14-year-old? What are you seeing?

STEINER: Well, I got hooked on this book from the very first page, because I really I think it's a wonderful subject that we don't talk about enough as moms and as - in the schools, and that boys are pretty misunderstood, I think. And my 14-year-old son, he's one of these easygoing kids that you could drop him anywhere, and he would have four or five friends within about 15 minutes. And he has a core of six to eight boys who - they're his best friends. They're together all the time.

The thing that's kind of interesting about them that I feel gets them in trouble sometimes is that they are so rough with each other, physically and verbally. But I've watched them up close and personal for years. There's sleepovers at my house almost every Friday night of the school year with all of them, and they really deeply care for each other. But they're very comfortable showing affection by teasing each other and by tackling each other. And I think that it frightens some people. I think, you know, maybe rightly so, we're worried about boys being too violent. But I think we come down too hard on boys who have friends who they express physical and other kinds of affection in ways that our society is starting to say is totally unacceptable. And I find that to be sad, and it must be very confusing for the boys.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having our weekly parenting conversation, and we're talking about the friendships among boys. We're talking about why those friendships matter, and why boys sometimes have trouble maintaining those friendships.

Our guests are our regular Moms contributors Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Also with us is Professor Niobe Way. She is the author of, "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection." Professor Way, could you talk a little bit more about what Leslie just raised? This idea that there seems to be a...

WAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...growing discomfort around the way sometimes boys like to express themselves, like roughhousing, you know, punching each other and things like that. There seems to be a lot of energy around...

WAY: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...intervening in that. Do you think that's true?

WAY: Well, I think that is true. I mean, I think we're uncomfortable with boys being intimate, whatever form. And so one could say that there's a kind of wrestling that I certainly know from my own son that has an obvious quality of intimacy to it, in terms of the way they're tumbling around on the floor. And, in general, we're uncomfortable with boys being intimate with each other. And ultimately, you know, whether it comes out on a physical form or a verbal form, we see that we have done something. We're really pathologizing a critical relationship for boys and, you know, we need to become aware of this.

MARTIN: And Leslie, though, you were saying that you really do feel that there's a way that the society is pathologizing boys in the way they often like to relate to each other. For example, do you mind my mentioning that - is it okay if I mention your son was suspended for roughhousing?

STEINER: Yes. My son and several of this crew of his friends were, this past year in eighth grade, they faced a really hard time at school. And several of them were suspended on different occasions. And it was roughhousing within the group. Nobody was hurt. And it was really, in my view, it was - it's a tiny school, and people know these boys very well. And they should have known that these boys were - are really good friends and not doing any harm. And I think there's a lot of paranoia about bullying - rightly so. But I think it's what Niobe said, is that we're really uncomfortable with any kind of closeness among boys, whether...

WAY: Yup. Yup.

STEINER: And this summer, I was reflecting on it because I had a business trip to India, and I was shocked by how physically affectionate boys are there. You know, you're walking down the street, boys just throw their arms around each other, two, three boys at once, grown men putting their arms around each other, holding hands walking down the street. And India is a deeply patriarchal country, and here they are so very comfortable with physical affection in a way that we clearly aren't here.

MARTIN: Well, because - that's, in part, because it is a deeply patriarchal society.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It's that - it's women and men walking down the street holding hands. But perhaps some will remember when former president George W. Bush greeted Saudi King Abdullah at his ranch in Crawford. As a gesture of friendship, he held the monarch's hand as they approached the steps. And some people thought he was holding his hand because he was elderly, but it was, in fact, it was a gesture of friendship. And you remember there was some discussion around that.

WAY: Yup.

STEINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, was that okay to do? But, you know, I want to talk a little bit about gangs. And it's a place where, you know, I think, Leslie, I think it's fair to say that one of the reasons that people become - they're concerned about boys friendships and - is that they worry that then, unlike with girls, they think that it moves into a bad phase or something dangerous. And I want to talk a little bit about the role that gangs play as kind of an extension - perhaps maybe do I want to say extreme form of male friendship?

I'll just play a short clip from a conversation we had earlier this year with a young man name Lac Su, who's the author of a book called "I Love Yous are for White People." And he comes immigrant family, an Asian immigrant family. And he talked about the fact that his parents, particularly his father, very remote, very authoritarian, and that he sought comfort and intimacy and warmth with men, other men, and he found it in a gang. And I'll just play a short clip from the conversation that we had with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

LAC SU: In the gangs that I ran with, there was a lot of compliments, even though they were, you know, bad actions that I did. It was a form of retreat, as well. We hung around each other to be away from our families. So we'd get together and talk about the way our parents beat us. And sometimes it's so hard that we resorted to drinking and, you know, drugs and all that, to forget the circumstances of the way our parents raised us.

MARTIN: So, Jolene, what do think about that? I mean - and I just want to mention for those who may not remember, in addition to being the mom of five boys, you're also a state legislator and you're also married to a former prosecutor, the former chief prosecutor for the region in which - for the jurisdiction in which you live. So you've actually thought a lot about this. So...

IVEY: Well, what he just described was what leads voice to join gangs. I mean, boys want the friendships...

MARTIN: Exactly.

IVEY: ...like Niobe has said, and if they don't find the gang at home to belong to, of their parents and their siblings, they're going to find it somewhere. So hopefully, it's a good gang, like Leslie's son's friends, or - as opposed to one that'll - part of their social activities is stealing cars and sticking people up.

MARTIN: You know what? Why don't we again - Niobe why, maybe you take this.

WAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why don't we have a similar concern about girls doing - I mean, we do have a concern about girls ganging up on other girls and bullying and being mean in particularly, you know, the social media age. But why, you know, you know what I mean? Why is it that we...

WAY: I think it really goes back to this issue that I think that boys have the same social, emotional needs and desires as girls. We need to foster those needs. And then - and guess what happens if we don't foster those needs and we don't attune to those needs? They start acting poorly. By the way, boys also, right at the age in which they lose their friendships, it's right at the age that boys' suicide rate goes up five times the rate of girls, at about 15, 16 years old. So there are also higher rates of suicide among boys than girls. So boys are clearly in trouble.

And I think part of the things about boys that I just want to throw in there before I know you have to move on, is that helping our sons also make good choices in who their friends are.

MARTIN: Well, that's where I wanted to go, actually.

WAY: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: That's where I wanted you to go next. And I'm going to ask each of you to weigh in on this. So are there things that parents, friends, care-giving adults can do to help boys develop and maintain these healthy friendships and relationships? Niobe, you started there. So do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

WAY: Basically, I see that the ways to help boys are in two sort of overarching areas. One is helping them with their relationships. So talking about their friendships at the dinner table, talking about your own friendships so boys can also hear the complexities and the joys of friendships, understand how to negotiate things, helping them make good choices in their friendships, choices so that they choose friends that support them so that it's mutually supportive. I know lots of boys that get in these friendships, in which it goes one way and not the other.

The second realm of help I think parents can do is that - around emotional and social skills, helping them with their - natural empathic skills. And also, finally, just avoiding repeating stereotypes that we know hurt boys, like big boys don't cry, all those kinds of things that we know parents all the time will repeat to their sons, avoiding those kinds of things, because that makes boys feel bad when they actually have real feelings that they want to express.

MARTIN: Hm. This is a conversation we need to obviously bring some dads into because...

WAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I can tell you that some of them will have some rather different feelings about that, feeling that they're equipping their sons for the world that they're actually living into. So we'll obviously need to have part two of this conversation. Leslie, what about you? What are some of the things that you think that parents can do, caring adults can do to help boys?

STEINER: Well, one thing that I have done is that my home is very boy-friendly. My living room, for a long time, had no furniture in it, and it was a football field for my son. So I make it a place where boys can hang out. But it doesn't mean that they run wild. I'm a very strict chaperone. And I have confronted all of them at one time or another about something that they did or some language that they had, or the way they were speaking about each other or a girl that I didn't like.

I also try to get my son and his friends to talk, to use words. I'm really into communication, and I try to draw him out, and I think it's worked so far. And then the last thing I did, which is just this summer, is that there's a new honorary member of the Max gang, and that is that I let him get a pet. He wanted to get a boa constrictor, of course. He wanted to get a really macho pet, and I wouldn't do that. So I let him get a kitten. The kitten is named Spike. He has a spiked collar.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEINER: He's like the toughest little cat you've ever seen. But he's my son's. And I think it really brings out a nurturing side of him that - being encouraged to show that kind of love for a weak little, you know, four-pound stray is going to help my son over time.

WAY: That's a great idea. Yeah. That's wonderful.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you. You have a lot of experience in this area, too.

IVEY: And I'm a pretty practical person. If it's a kid who I like who I could see is a good influence on my kid, I make it really easy for my kid to be able to play with that kid. I'll make play dates. I'll drive him some place. I'll make fun things happen for them. If it's a kid that I'm not too excited about, then, you know, I just can come up with barriers, like why you can't go out today and, you know, something else that needs to be done. And I never bring up that the kid is kind of obnoxious. I mean, sometimes I do. But generally, I just try to make it easy for them to have friends who are good for them, and make it difficult for them to have friends who aren't good for them. And that works pretty well.

MARTIN: To be continued. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker. She is the mother of five boys. She joined us, once again, from our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us, Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's another one of our regulars. She's the author of the book most recently "Crazy Love," and she's the mother of three, which includes one teenage boy. She spoke with us from our bureau in New York. And also with us, Niobe Way. She is the author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection." She's also a professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. And she's with us from Boston.

Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

STEINER: A pleasure.

WAY: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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