As my daughters have progressed through elementary school and into middle school, it’s been interesting to observe the changing social norms of boy-girl friendships.
Some years, these friendships were natural. Boys were invited to birthday parties and over to play. Other years, that was no longer okay. Invite lists included only girls, school lunch tables were mostly divided by gender as were games on recess.
Our family has always encouraged friendships with the opposite gender, but sometimes social norms are so strong, these friendships can’t blossom.
The Positive Impact of Boy-Girl Friendships
Yet research finds that girl-boy friendships are important because they give kids a chance to explore themselves outside of gender scripts. This recent CNN article shares some of the benefits of boy-girl friendships including:
- Learning how to resolve conflict in different ways. Girls tend to “talk it out” while boys may stick to rules. Experiencing diverse ways of conflict resolution builds skills that benefit future relationships.
- Girl-boy friendships give boys a chance to express their feelings. Research by Michael Thompson and others reveal boys long for emotional connection just as much as girls do.
- And boy-girl friendships encourage kids to question stereotypes and explore parts of themselves that our culture pressures them to bury. For instance, a girl playing with a boy might feel free to be competitive, a trait normally associated with boys. Or, a boy playing with a girl might feel free to be talkative and emotional, traits normally associated with girls.
How do Parents Foster these Friendships?
Here are a few tips I’ve found useful.
- Offer a variety of play options, including boys and girls, but do not force kids into situations they are uncomfortable with. Allow them to take the lead on choosing and to explain how they feel about things.
- If your child has a friend of the opposite gender, avoid teasing them about being “boyfriend/girlfriend.” Instead send the message that it’s okay to be friends with kids of the opposite gender.
- Make time to connect with cousins, neighbors and close family friends of the opposite gender. At times, social norms might be so strong that boy-girl friendships are limited at school. Weekends and family time provide a good alternative for kids to develop friendships.
All childhood friendships provide a training ground to develop skills that support healthy relationships over a lifetime. I hope these tips help your family explore and avoid gender stereotypes and the value of diverse friendships.
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