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Understanding and Encouraging Opposite-Sex Friendships

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boys and girls playing tug of war together
While there are challenges to opposite-gender friendships, there are also genuine benefits if you position your son or daughter to have these types of friendships.

Imagine this: You and your son are walking up to the door of a friend’s house. Both of you are excited and a bit nervous about the afternoon birthday party with other boy and girl friends. After being greeted at the door, you set down the gift you picked out, and your son takes a few glances around the room and suddenly realizes, “I’m the only boy here!” If you have young kids, don’t be surprised if you show up for a party or play date and you discover your child has struck up an opposite-sex friendship.

As parents, it’s perfectly okay to hope your child can be comfortable and relate well with boys and girls. But there are also reasonable questions about boy and girl friendships.

While there are challenges to opposite-sex friendships, there are also genuine benefits if you position your son or daughter to have these types of friendships. Let’s begin by understanding a few important things about friendship itself.

Where Do We Get Our View of Opposite-Sex Friendships?

Whether we’re aware or not, we observe multiple interactions between opposite sexes every day. Television series such as Friends and This is Us demonstrate the deep bonds that can grow out of opposite-sex friendships. However, it can be easy to forget that we’re watching season four of a show and not real life. 

In other words, we forget that dozens of previous episodes explore the challenges that form these friendships. These shows often contain the close-knit opposite-sex relationships we desire, and we can often catch ourselves saying, “I want a friend like that!” However, these relationships are acted out on screen, not in real life. 

Keep in mind how the Bible describes close friendships. Proverbs 18:24 reminds us to find “…a friend who sticks closer than a brother!” But be honest for a moment. How many close friends do you have?

In a 2019 study conducted by OnePoll, 45% of adults say they find it hard to make friends. This study reveals that the average person hasn’t made a new friend in five years! Other studies show adults have from zero to three best friends. That loneliness is rampant with younger and older adults as well.

These studies are worth mentioning because an expectation for automatic opposite-sex friendships can put unrealistic pressure on you and your child. At the same time, there can be genuine benefits to cultivating these boy and girl friendships.

Childhood Development and Opposite-Sex Friendships

Visit any school playground, and you’ll see the correlation between childhood development and opposite-gender friendships. Up to age 3children play easily with either sex. But studies show from about age four onwards, that boys mostly play with boys and girls with girls. Eileen Kennedy-Moore points out another key factor. “Up to age 7, boys tend to be friends with a few other boys; whereas, girls play with a whole group of girls.” But after age 7, it reverses. “Boys tend to hang out in larger groups whereas girls gravitate towards a few best friends.”

Again, all that is not to say you can’t help foster opposite-sex friendships. You can! Parents can play a significant role in the development of these boy and girl friendships. But it is important to keep in mind there are a few things out of our control. These things can include how the friendship forms, shared interests, and even personality differences such as extroversion and introversion.

Realize that there is a big difference between companionship and friendship. Trying to force your son or daughter to be close friends with anyone can be like trying to force a rose to open. Pushing a boy and girl together may lead to a friendship. Yet, in most cases, demanding a friendship happen can be a petal-dropping process for everyone.

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3 Things You Can Do to Help Foster Opposite-Sex Friendships

Here are some suggestions on building opposite-sex friendships that can be very helpful to your child when they’re young or even as they get older. 

1) Seek Community

We encourage you, particularly if you have all girls or all boys, to spend time with families who have children of the opposite gender. Studies show that boys and girls often do play more comfortably and positively together if parents are present.

For example, our two girls had two sets of opposite-gender friendships while they grew up. Across the street, the “Rodie Boys” were two boys almost their age. The four of them spent hours riding bikes in the cul-de-sac and playing roller hockey. And the “Crowell Boys” often joined in the fun as well. They were part of a family who lived further away but with whom we spent almost every major holiday, year after year. 

These friendships gave our girls a great, safe opportunity to discover a hidden truth about opposite-gender friendships. My daughter, Laura, recently described this to me: “Hanging out with the Rodie and Crowell boys growing up made it much easier for me to relate to other boys at school. After hanging out with them, boys weren’t such a mystery. It made approaching boys, talking with them, even dating, easier.”

2) Side-by-Side Friendship

C.S. Lewis shares tremendous insight on friendship in his classic book, The Four Loves. In speaking of friendship, Lewis writes, “Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out.” Instead, friendship was something that happens “while you are doing something else together.”

Friendship is a side-by-side relationship, not a face-to-face relationship. It’s where two people — regardless of gender, social status, education, or anything else — find themselves alongside someone doing something they like doing. And in doing so, they often say, “What? You like that too?” Real connection and friendship begin around that shared interest. 

When you are helping create opposite-gender friendships, look for those connection points that your child may have in common with another child. It can be anything from swimming to playing the clarinet, Legos® to fishing, or theatre to playing street hockey. Whatever it may be, help your child establish side-by-side connections with others. 

3) Difficulties Can Create Lasting Bonds 

Years ago, a fantastic study called The Robbers Cave Experiment revealed something about the creation of friendships. In short, two cabins of young boys at a summer camp became highly competitive, to the point of angry rivals. But then something happened. 

The two sets of campers shared the same water system to each camp. And it suddenly broke! (Or actually, was broken by the counselors). All the boys had to come together to dig up the broken water line. After they repaired the line, the cabins found that the previous competition and anger had gone away. In its place, they realized their common and challenging goal had helped them form a friendship.

Now let’s step back into opposite-sex friendships. One time, we went on a camping trip with the Rodie family. The trip took place at the beginning of our relationship with the Rodies — and their boys with our girls. On this camping trip, we faced various challenges: swarms of mosquitos, a mile-long run in the hail, a flooded campground, and losing our cooler full of food out of the truck. 

But amazingly, when we got home, that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” camping trip turned into an incredible bonding time for our daughters and the Rodie boys. You don’t have to create trials (like the Robbers Cave Experiment). Sometimes, doing something together with another family, such as camping, hiking, a mission trip, or any number of complicated things, can help create amazing friendships.

Lasting Effects of Opposite-Sex Friendships

Helping your child engage positively with children of the opposite sex — without the expectation of a life-long friendship — can put them in a better position for future situations in life. Today, men and women often work side-by-side. Boy and girl friendships can be a great way to prepare for this interaction when our kids become adults. In education or the mission field, art, or even computer programming, friendship can happen between genders. But it’s great if it begins with boys and girls sharing life in a comfortable, positive way. When an environment for them to do things together arises, an opposite-sex friendship can begin.

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