Little Boys and Buddies: Why Male Friendships Matter
Find out why snip and snails and puppy dog tails set boys apart.
First Lessons in Friendship
As a mother to both a son and daughter, I’m amazed at the many differences between them—their personalities, interests, and even their relationships with friends. The last one shouldn’t surprise me though. My childhood memories of friendship include sleepovers, secrets, and spats with girlfriends. My husband’s clearest memories are of playing wiffle ball in the backyard, Friday night football games, and hiding out in his tree fort with the boys from the neighborhood.
“Boys and girls may define what constitutes a close friend differently,” says Dr. Thomas S. Jensen, MD, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. “Particularly as they grow older, girls are more likely to define a close friend as someone who will listen and understand, as well as share secrets and emotions with them. Boys are more likely to define a close friend as someone who spends time with them, takes their side in situations of potential conflict, and shares similar interests. For boys, emotional intimacy often has less importance in defining a close relationship than loyalty during times of conflict.”
Parents have a big influence on their children’s lives, including laying the groundwork for future relationships. “Attachments are formed by 24 months with a child’s parents or primary caregiver,” says Dr. Michael Handwerk, PhD, director, Clinical Services, Research and Internship Training, Girls and Boys Town, Omaha, Nebraska.
The presence of siblings can also influence a child’s friendships. Whether these relationships are positive or negative, the way in which a child copes with brothers and sisters can have an impact on his friendships as he grows. Some children may be so lucky as to find a best friend living under the same roof. Mary Beth LaRosa, from Granby, Connecticut, and the mother of three boys, says, “I am so fortunate to have sons that play incredibly well together.” After a day at kindergarten, her oldest son came home with a drawing of his best friend, which happened to be his younger brother.
The Stages of Friendship
“The early stages of friendships are evident prior to preschool,” says Dr. Handwerk. Such is the case with Kristina Roland’s one-year-old son. “[He] would get very excited to see [his peer] Jake every morning when he would go into daycare,” says Roland, who lives in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. “He had some kind of connection to this child in particular.”
As children develop more skill and autonomy, between the ages of two to five, they feel more free and willing to develop friendships. This is when children relate to each other through parallel play. At a playdate, your son may be playing with the blocks while his friend plays with the fire trucks. They may share limited verbal communication and physical interaction. It may not look like they are playing together, yet they are learning by being near each other and imitating one another as they play.
“For the preschool child, friendships provide a laboratory to learn to read basic social cues,” says Dr. Jensen. Children this age are learning to interact with other kids who have different ideas than them, forming the basis for cooperation and negotiation, and stimulating their developing brains by being presented with something other than their own thoughts of what should be happening.
“From age five to seven is when most children start to form intimate relationships with friends, and primarily with the same sex,” says Dr. Handwerk. This is the age when they become less dependent on their parents and more dependent on input and socialization with friends. At this age, boys may engage other boys at the playground and may even cooperate and plan games with them.
But by the end of the preschool years, children should be freely selecting friends on the basis of shared interests and activities. Many parents find that boys’ friendships are more orientated around groups and common activities. Just as men tend to base friendships on shared interests, such as sports or work, boys seem to choose friends who like the same things as they do.
“First friendships can be either sex—anyone to play with,” recalls Barbara Gokey, of her personal experience with her son’s friendships. “As they get older and do sports and other physical things, they tend to pick other boys to be with. As they grow mentally, they tend to be closer to those friends that have similar interests though they don’t abandon all the others,” says the Enfield, Connecticut mom.
However, warns Dr. Handwerk, “Girls [beginning at about preschool age] tend to be a half year to one year more mature in all socialization domains, including friendship.” So don’t be too concerned if your son’s age and ability don’t match these age guidelines.
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN