Making and Maintaining Boy/Girl Friendships

The boys go off one way, to their active adventure play, their sports. The girls go another way, to their quieter fantasies, their adornment. The forces that pull them apart seem as strong and relentless as the tides. Yet we have clues that this is not the only possible state of affairs. Our toddlers are a great example. Any new activity or challenge is an adventure; any new person is a potential friend. Sex role stereotypes are as meaningless to them as calculus. There are also those rare friendships between boys and girls that somehow get rooted so firmly that they hold despite all the forces that would pull them apart.

But by the time they are three or four, many of our children are beginning to group by sex for play and friendships. Not too long after, we start hearing them actually repeating the stereotypes ("boys are nasty;" "we don't want any girls here") and we know that the messages from the outside world have taken hold.

How can we keep access to cross-sex friendships open to our children? I keep thinking of a teacher at school who spent most of a morning with a tough little three-year-old boy and a frilly, motherly five-year-old girl, helping them figure out how they could have fun together. There were no insurmountable obstacles; they just gravitated toward their own (sex-stereotyped) friends and activities. All the teacher had to do was just know that they would rather be friends than not, decide to take the time to listen to their reasons for not playing together, and keep making himself available as a resource as they tried to figure out what would be fun for both. It was good for the children--and a very good model for the other adults.

What's usually missing is the decision on the part of an adult to take that kind of time (and lord knows we parents are not sitting around with time on our hands). But I'm intrigued by the possibility--and I've started noticing what I can do. I can make a point of inviting and including girls in our activities even though they might not be my boys' first choice--and plan the time so that it can be fun for everybody. What are challenges and activities that can be interesting to both sexes and taken over by neither? If the boys play baseball and the girls jump rope, how about introducing soccer for both? If the girls are into gymnastics and the boys into speed, how about an obstacle course? Or a cooking project that none of them have ever tried (like making noodles or shish-kebob) or a woodworking project that stretches the skills of both? I know it takes energy. If I don't put it out, they are likely to settle back into the routines that they know (and that we've all gotten comfortable with). But I also know that it's possible--and it sure is satisfying to watch them try new things and have fun together--and watch the gender issues fade into insignificance.

I also know that they'll be in a much stronger position to handle all the traumas that come with adolescence if they've managed to hang onto some good friends of the opposite sex that long. If girls have boys that they can just talk with, if boys have girls that enjoy their company as friends, some of the edge is taken off the excruciating pain, loneliness and embarrassment of those years. I'm up for the challenge.