We often cast children as radicals and their parents as stiffs. It’s a tidy narrative, one that speaks to our hope for the next generation and their ability to see beyond our blind spots and biases. Unfortunately, it’s not always true.
Children have an often overlooked conservative streak, one that’s most easily identifiable in their attitudes toward gender. Even as more grown-ups come around to the idea that gender is a spectrum, children continue to draw a bold line between “boy” and “girl” and police these categories with a great fervor. “Boys can’t be friends with girls, and boys can’t jump rope!” my son’s friend recently explained to him during recess.
A life without jump roping would be fine. A life without girl-friends would not.
Girl-boy friendships matter. They give kids a chance to explore themselves outside of constrictive gender scripts, and, ideally, question stereotypes. A girl playing with a boy might feel free to be competitive, a trait normally associated with boys. A boy playing with a girl might feel free to be talkative and emotional, traits normally associated with girls. A child questioning his or her own sexuality or gender might feel more liberated to explore parts of him, her, or themself that our culture pressures them to bury.
These friendships also allow children to prepare for adulthood, during which many of us will work alongside, and often have romantic relationships with, another gender. Overall, the ability to see half of humanity in all their complexity is a major life asset, professionally and personally.
Kids, indoctrinated by the pink vs. blue world view, might have a tough time seeing all this. But parents can help.
Children are more than their gender
Many adults, and children, resist girl-boy play because they believe boys are hardwired to play like boys and girls are hardwired to play like girls. As with all issues related to sex and gender, the research on this is extensive, and controversial. However, there is a growing consensus that while there are a handful of traits that are more common in boys, and another handful that are more common in girls, few individuals are pure “boy” or “girl.”
So yes, more boys might like rough-and-tumble play, and more girls might like sharing their feelings, and this might be the result of both nature and nurture. However, just because girls, on average, are less likely to want to engage in rough-and-tumble play than boys, it does not mean that any one girl is less likely to want to rough-and-tumble play than her boy peers.
“The differences [discovered by gender researchers] are generalizations. But on an individual basis, there is a tremendous amount of overlap [between girls and boys],” said David Walsh, a psychologist and author.
Our culture reinforces personality traits and preferences that hew to gender stereotypes, and diminishes those that go against expectations. A boy might be more interested in ninjas than dolls, and this interest might possibly be the result of nature. He is still interested in dolls, which also might be the result of nature. But the world around him will only encourage the ninja side of him.
Our culture also reinforces the idea that when a boy and girl play together, it must be love. It’s still not uncommon to witness parents lovingly tease their pre-school and early elementary-age children about their different-gender friend. “Oliver has a little girlfriend!” As if it could only be a PG romance, and not Oliver’s female friend’s sense of humor and doll collection, that is pulling him in.
Girl-boy friendships can help undo some of these socialized gender constraints. When parents and teachers approve of these relationships, they are sending their children the message that it’s not only okay to play with the another gender, but it is also okay to play like them. Children learn fast.
“When boys and girls do play together, many of those differences start to disappear,” Walsh said.
The long term benefits of girl-boy friendships
This isn’t just a matter of self-actualization for children, or discovering their truest selves. Practically speaking, there are a lot of benefits to girl-boy friendships that will help them as they grow up.
Research shows that boys and girls tend to deal with disagreements in different ways. Girls often prefer to talk out it, while boys often focus more on the rules, explained Rachel Simmons, author of “Enough as She Is,” and cofounder of the national nonprofit Girls Leadership.
“You want girls and boys to be exposed to different ways of conflict resolution, and to take them seriously from a young age,” Simmons said. “I want my daughter to be comfortable with both, and have the facility to move freely between the two. This will help her socially and professionally [in the future.]”
Another advantage to girl-boy friendships is the way they give boys a chance to talk about their feelings. This practice in expressing themselves will help them as they pursue professional and romantic relationships later on in life, whether with girls or boys.
“If boys are able to retain close relationships with girls and negotiate friendships with girls [while young], then they come to romantic relationships much better prepared for intimacy, rather than just sexual gratification,” said Michael C. Reichert, psychologist and author of the upcoming book, “How to Raise a Boy.”
He explained that boys are often afraid to acknowledge their feelings for girls, because of the stereotype that men are primarily sexually driven. But this stereotype is wrong, and research and personal experience have shown Reichert that boys also long for an emotional connection. They just don’t always know how to achieve it.
How to encourage children
As long as children keep witnessing gender stereotypes on TV and in toy marketing, it will be hard for them to take the leap of imagination necessary to befriend another gender on their own. This is where parents come in.
Moms and dads can help children resist the boys-are-this-way and girls-are-that-way stereotypes by offering their children a wide variety of play options – toys and friends. However, such culture-defying messages should be sent gently and subtly, said Reichert.
His concern is that if parents come off as preachy or pressing, children might feel forced to do something they aren’t comfortable with. Parents can help their children challenge gender norms, but they should do it in a way that is sensitive to the very real, sometimes scary, role these norms play in a child’s life. Being the girl or boy who rejects groupthink takes some courage, and not every kid is up to the task.
For example, when my son told me that his friend taunted him about how it is wrong for boys to jump rope and play with girls, I thought I was doing right by quickly affirming that our family doesn’t believe that. When this topic comes up again, I will avoid going straight to proclamations and give him plenty of room to explain how he feels about it.
“It’s really a matter of establishing a dialogue,” he said, “and for your son to sense that what is important [to his parent] is his heart, and not some particular argument.”
Parents can casually suggest all gender schoolmates for playdates and birthday party lists. But if those get rejected, and there is a good chance they will, there are other ways to encourage cross-gender play.
Simmons says most of her daughter’s boy-friends are the sons of adult friends, whom they see as a family on the weekends. Cousins and neighbors also provide good off-the-clock opportunities for your children to build connections with another gender without fear of judgement.
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Ultimately, whether or not our children have girl-boy friends isn’t up to us. It is up to them. But parents need to remember that their children’s social lives don’t take shape in a vacuum.
Childhood friendships are colored by Netflix algorithms, schoolyard chatter, gender-specific goody bags, and the million other messages children receive informing them that being a different gender from someone means you have absolutely nothing in common with them. When we encourage girl-boy friendships, we’re also letting our kids know that we’re not buying any of this, and they don’t have to either.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.