By Pamela Marquis
May 9, 2019

"The more variety children have in their friends, the more they can see the world in different and positive ways."

Girl-boy friendships can be an important part of learning how the world works.

Jack White and Georgia Peyton have been friends for years. In a Mid City duplex, Georgia’s mother lived downstairs and Jack’s above. They gave birth to their children just a few months apart — seven years ago.

The two children have cried and giggled together, shared their treats, camped out at the Audubon Zoo, and survived the usuals scraps, bruises, and winter colds. To this day they remain the “bestest” of friends.

“I like having friends who are girls,” says Jack. “I don’t only have boyfriends, I also have girlfriends. Well, not ‘girlfriends’ but, you know, girls for friends, like Georgia.”

Jack and Georgia’s intergender friendship will go through changes and evolve, but it’s already a very important part of their healthy development into adulthood.

Never too Early

"...intergender friends give children a way to explore the differences between genders..."

According to clinical and developmental psychologist Denise L. Newman, preschool friendships are helpful in developing social and emotional skills, and they can increase a child’s sense of belonging.

“These friendships help children learn to be sensitive to another’s viewpoints,” she says.

Early on, parents have a lot to do with whom their children play with because they are the ones who put the children together. However, as the children get older, they begin to choose their own friends.

“Having friends of the opposite gender is very normal at this age (preschool through the early primary grades) and generally, a very positive thing,” Newman says. “The more variety children have in their friends, the more they can see the world in different and positive ways. The message they take away from diversity in their friendship group is simply that this is the world: diverse. Some friends are boys, some friends are girls, some friends don’t know just yet.”

Newman says during the second half of grade school there can be a shift among many students into developing same-sex chums, choosing one or two best friends who are of the same gender. But there is no single path for all children.

By the fourth or fifth grade, when boys and girls discover new possibilities about the opposite sex, intergender friends give children a way to explore the differences between genders and serve as practice to nascent flirting and intimacy.

Referring to adolescence, Newman says another thing that happens around this time is group dating, which is another way for children to test the water. Three or four girls and three or four boys will just “hang out together.”

"It's like a transition phase between same-sex friendships and dating," she says.

Benefits of Intergender Friends

"Girl-boy friendships also give children a chance to explore themselves outside of prescribed gender stereotypes."

Kathleen Whalen, LCSW and executive director of Strategies for Youth Development, also believes that there are a number of benefits to your child having opposite-sex friendships.

“The first is that a child will get a lot of practice learning to talk and interact with the opposite sex without having all the things that come with a romantic relationship,” she says. “Intergender relationships are critical at each stage of development. However, it gets harder as they get older to maintain these friendships because the genderization in the world sets in.”

Whalen believes our culture often promotes gender stereotypes. Such things as thinking ballet is “girly” or boys should never wear pink, or bodybuilding will make a girl too muscular, and it’s important for a girl to be polite.

Girl-boy friendships also give children a chance to explore themselves outside of prescribed gender stereotypes. A girl playing with a boy might feel free to be more aggressive, a trait usually associated with boys, or a boy playing with a girl might feel free to be emotional, a trait usually associated with girls.

“Also, as parents, we need to make sure our children can continue their early intergender friendships into middle and high school,” Whalen says. “We need to help remove the barriers that hamstring them with the expectation that those friendships should somehow become romantic. And we need to be careful and deliberate in our language so that we make no allusion to the children being more than friends, even in a joking manner.”

Parents with no ill intent often lovingly tease their children about their different-gender friend, saying such things as, “Aww, sweetheart, is Johnnie your little boyfriend? Isn’t that cute?”

"Parents should monitor their reactions to the friends their children choose,” Whalen says. “They should continue to listen to their children and be careful not to let personal bias influence their responses. As children grow and develop lives separate from their parents, it is important that the adults help them develop the skills to create and maintain healthy friendships. Then trust that your children will use these skills wisely regardless of the gender of the friend.”

Lead by Example

"...share your own healthy intergender friendships with your children so they can see how they work."

Both Newman and Whalen agree that, like so many best parenting practices, it’s important to lead by example and share your own healthy intergender friendships with your children so they can see how they work.

Childhood friendships are precious and children will find friends in their neighborhood, at soccer practice, Sunday school, or summer camp. Almost all parents are happy when their children find friendships that are meaningful, reciprocal, fun, and trusting. And most importantly, when they find a friendship that offers their child a safe harbor in this crazy and complicated world. So if that friend is the same sex or the opposite sex, it doesn’t really matter as long as he or she offers a healthy, caring and “bestest”-ever friendship.

Speaking of friends, check out The Parenting Corner's column on The True Value of Friendship.

 


Pamela Marquis has lived in New Orleans for more than 40 years. She is a freelance writer and holds a master's in social work from the University of Missouri.

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