Niobe Way


On her book Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection

Cover Interview of June 28, 2011

A close-up

Research consistently reveals that friendships are key to all aspects of wellbeing.  So we should be alarmed by the findings of loss of friendships and increased feelings of distrust among boys during late adolescence.

Close friendships provide a sense of self-worth, validation, and connectedness to the larger world and significantly enhance psychological, physical, and academic wellbeing.  Adolescents without close friendships are at risk of depression, suicide, dropping out, disengagement from school, early pregnancy, drug use, and gang membership.

Research has even suggested that the effects of the quality of friendships on adjustment may be stronger for boys than for girls.

Among adult men and women, research also indicates that those who have close friendships or strong social support networks are less prone to depression and more likely to thrive in all areas of their lives.

In a six-year study of 736 middle-aged men reported in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, Kristina Orth-Gomer and her colleagues found that attachment to a single person did not appear to lower the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease—whereas having close friendships did.  Smoking was the only risk factor comparable in strength to lack of friendship support!

Health researchers find that people with strong friendships are less likely than other to get colds and common illnesses and that people with fewer friends are at higher risk of death.  In their book The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson conclude that the two most important factors that determine the health and wellbeing of people living in developed nations are social status and friendship.  Study after study has underscored the importance of close friendships throughout the lifespan.

In addition, recent scholarship in neuroscience, developmental psychology, psychiatry, and evolutionary anthropology are emphasizing the empathic and cooperative nature of all humans—not just girls and women.

We should be alarmed at the findings that boys do not consistently think or behave in gender stereotypic ways.  Unlike their stereotypes, they are emotionally astute, deeply empathic, and yearning for emotionally intimate friendships.

Why is this cause for alarm?  Because much of the way we think about parenting and schooling boys are based on gender stereotypes.  Even the most recent school reforms are based on gender stereotypes (e.g., creating “boy curriculums”).

Boys are deeply emotional, social, and in need of close relationships.  So we need to rethink how we parent boys.  And school should rethink what to do to foster boys’ development.

On the other hand, we should also be relieved to discover that boys and men are human too.