Gender and Friendships

Oh, the horror. What is a parent to do when a boy's friends are girls?
Q: Our high school son’s friends seem to be overwhelmingly female.

We think he's still too young to be spending so much time with the young ladies. In his young teen years we would prefer him to be playing ball with guys his age.

Is there anything unusual about this?

Notice the easy segue from what "we would prefer" to the question of what is "unusual".

MSNBC Today's parenting guru, Dr. Ruth Peters, hedges.
A: The response depends upon how your child fits in with other kids his age, especially at school.

Many teenage boys that I’ve worked with maintain “special friendships” with girls, mainly because they feel that females tend to be better listeners than guys. Your son may be more comfortable talking on the phone with girls as well as engaging in social activities, rather than playing ball or hanging out with guys his age.

There's nothing wrong with this, especially if the young ladies are appropriate, good and loyal friends. The question, though, is one of balance.

Ah, so it's "balance" that matters. Should we set a goal, then? If "balance" is what we're after, perhaps a 50/50 gender ratio would be optimal. So, Dr. Ruth Peters, are you now ready to tell every mother in America that fifty percent of her son's buddies should be girls? Didn't think so. It's only when the boy's friends are the "wrong" gender that balance is an issue, isn't it?
If your child focuses his friendships totally upon females because he feels that he cannot make and keep friendships with guys, there may be a problem.

So now we're going to start looking for all the reasons having female friends might be a problem.
Perhaps he is not athletic and feels self-conscious hanging around with boys. Or, an embarrassing event earlier in life may have shaken his self-confidence and he fears that he will be rejected if he tries to socialize with them.

Did the writer mention any of these things? I missed it. But that doesn't stop Ruth Peters from trying to pathologize the boy's friendships with girls, just as the reactionary "experts" of a generation ago came up with all kinds of theories about the "cause" of homosexuality (domineering mother, absent father, blah blah blah). Some of them are still at it.
In my experience, I find that most teens realize that a mix of both male and female friends works best and they tend to move within mixed groups of boys and girls.

Here's the one statement in Peters' column that I can unequivocally agree with. Everyone should, I think, strive to maintain an inclusive circle of friends. It's especially important to learn to deal socially with people of both genders, and this is an essential skill in a gender-integrated society such as ours. Anyone growing up in the Western world will likely have both female and male co-workers, male and female social acquaintances, female and male mentors, and so on. More broadly, it's good to get to know people from a wide range of gender, social, geographical, ethnic, political, religious, and economic backgrounds. Human beings are diverse, and when we enrich our social circle we enrich ourselves. And young adulthood isn't a bad place to begin - I said begin - this process.

But that isn't really the issue for Ruth Peters and the concerned mom.
Try talking with your son in order to understand his motivation as to why his friends all seem to be girls. If he is lacking in self-confidence when dealing with guys, help him to understand the basis of this problem and to put it in proper perspective. If he was teased years ago for lack of athletic ability, that may not be as important now as a teenager. In addition, he may have developed a new interest or skill that would now enhance his importance in a group of guys but he hasn't yet realized that he can use this new skill to develop male friendships.

Pathologizing again. How about this novel concept: "Try talking to you son ... and then JUST LISTEN." That's right, just listen without projecting your own phobias on the kid.
Another type of situation in which I see boys maintaining most friendships with girls is, of course, that they are very attracted to the opposite sex. Although having a girlfriend as a teenager can be exciting and a ticket to popularity, your son needs to learn how to set limits upon this behavior. Not only am I suggesting setting sexual limits, but also acknowledging that having a girlfriend tends to be a distracting, time-consuming affair which can take precedence over completing chores and studying.

Balance, again, is key — he needs to learn that other things in life are of equal importance as having a bunch of girls to hang around with.

Let's read that last sentence again (and we'll try to ignore the atrocious grammar):
... he needs to learn that other things in life are of equal importance as having a bunch of girls to hang around with.

Here, Dr. Peters has finally answered the question: Yes, there IS a problem, because the boy's friendships are a sign that there is something "he needs to learn". Once again, she is zealous in finding all the things that might be "wrong" with this poor boy's life.
In addition, he may find that guys cease to be friends with him if he focuses most of his time on the ladies. When his relationships break up, your son’s guy friends may not be there to buoy his spirits or to help him recover from his lost love. It may be a good idea to bring these issues to his attention now so he can begin to regain some balance in his life.

... "Balance" that, in the estimable Dr. Peters' judgment, he clearly lacks. But wait! There's one more possibility.
A third reason why some teenage boys tend to surround themselves with girls as friends is that they are questioning their sexual identity. Be cautious about jumping to this conclusion, as your child may be comfortable with a heterosexual lifestyle. However, some teen boys find that they are much more comfortable with girls their age — they may be able to relate better conversationally, and they are not distracted or threatened by sexual feelings if their friends were boys. If this is the case, I hope that your son can begin to discuss his sexual identity conflicts with you, and I do hope that you are supportive of his feelings. He may be convinced that he is gay, or perhaps confused due to feelings of attraction that he’s had toward members of the same sex. If he desires, counseling may help him to clarify his feelings, to see that he is accepted by his family regardless of sexual orientation and to be able to keep this aspect of his personality in balance with responsibilities found at home and at school.

If there's an award among advice columnists for "breaking the bad news slowly", Dr. Peters ought to get it for this paragraph. Credit where due, she senses that her correspondent might just be, well, a teeensy bit uptight about the boy's sexual identity. So to avoid scaring the poor woman, she bends over backwards to avoid saying, "Y'know, hon, your son might be gay." But she does ask the mother, ever so gently, to be "supportive of his feelings." Good.

The fourth possibility, which Dr. Peters overlooks, is that the young person may be transgendered or differently gendered. He may identify with girls more than with boys; he may enjoy female friendships because he feels he has more in common with girls than with boys, or because their companionship, friendship, and respect are the things he values. In short, he may be physically male but psychologically female. That is, transgender or transsexual. But that's an eventuality that even the ever-so-broad-minded Ruth Peters is unwilling to confront.

Whether or not this is the case, he will not be helped by adults' contemptuous attitudes toward "having a bunch of girls to hang around with." Whether these two women recognize it or not, the boy's ability to form platonic friendships with girls is a wonderful thing. He will be less likely to engage in sexist or predatory behavior against women, because he will think of women as friends rather than sex objects. But if he's condemned for "hanging out with a bunch of girls", he will scarcely be learning respect for women.

Why is it still so easy for people in our culture - even educated, intelligent women like Dr. Peters - to devalue the role of females and female friendships? Are girls simply worth less than boys? Or is it a fear of transgressing socially assigned gender constraints? Sadly, sexist attitudes may be internalized by women, just as (for example) gays may internalize homophobia, or Jews anti-Semitism. And it's also true that much of the older generation is still carrying, subconsciously, centuries-long prejudices against people who do not conform to their socially assigned gender.

Social conservatives are not wrong when they recognize that, for most of the population, traditional gender roles are reasonably comfortable and meaningful. No one should expect women to stop being women or men to stop being men. In fact, the early feminist movement bears the blame for denying the existence of innate gender identity altogether, and thus muddying the debate for a whole generation. Nor do I dispute for a moment that there also exists such a thing as "misandry", or reverse sexism, among both men and women who have been overdosed on a certain kind of feminist dogma. The existence of one kind of prejudice does not negate or cancel the other. It is certainly true that "women and men are different"; it is also true that people are different, each one of us a unique individual.

Self-acceptance is the first step toward personal responsibility. When I can say, "I am not you, I am different from you", then I can acknowledge that you and I do not have to be identical to be worthy of one another's respect. I often hear today's "liberals" say things like, "I know you're Jewish/gay/black/evangelical/whatever, but it doesn't matter to me." This is the most illiberal thing we can possibly say - it's saying "I have to overlook an essential part of your identity for you to be OK". It's denying that we can embrace diversity as a positive thing.

When we acknowledge all of who we are, we acknowledge all of our potential for good and evil. If we are gay, we reject the idea that our love is a "disease" and embrace the responsibility of a committed relationship with another person. If we are differently gendered, we welcome the gift of seeing across the void between "Venus" and "Mars", and we reject sexism in all its forms.

I've been quoting Dr. Peters' column in full because I want you to know that I am not "cherry-picking" her words to support a particular viewpoint. You should also know that I don't mean to single out one columnist; I have no doubt that Dr. Peters is a fine, compassionate person and highly competent in her field. The attitudes I've criticized are widely shared and socially respectable among educated, "liberal" people. It is part of the broader problem of a liberal establishment so self-satisfied that it is blind to its own prejudices. (And conversely, some of the most open-minded people I've known have been housewives, combat soldiers, conservative bloggers, recovering addicts, and Orthodox rabbis.)

Here is
Dr. Peters’ Bottom Line: If your son is like many teens, he may meet your concerns with eye-rolling, a heavy sigh and an attitude that suggests that you're just not in tune with today’s kids. By asking him questions, getting to know his friends and staying open to all possibilities, perhaps he’ll feel more comfortable in expressing his concerns or helping you to understand what it’s like walking in his shoes. Be patient, supportive and available so that he’ll begin to open up to you and perhaps heed some of your advice.

And here's my bottom line: The kid's OK. Period. If his biggest problem is having mostly female friends, you should consider yourself the envy of a great many mothers of teenagers. He may have special challenges: If girls in his age group relate to him as a friend or "girl friend", then they may not see him as "dating material". Many straight women are not romantically attracted to men who are feminine, effeminate, or otherwise strongly female-identified - and we shouldn't expect them to be. But people are not all alike. (Of course, if he is gay, then none of this is a problem!) And then again, he may just be a regular straight guy who gets along well with girls, end of story. If your son can learn to interact socially with people of all genders, if he can respect himself and behave responsibly and compassionately toward others, if he can earn his place in the world and form a committed intimate relationship with another person - you should not ask for more than that. G-d created humankind, male and female, in the Divine image.