The general story we tell about boys’ friendships does not include a lot of intimacy. We tend to think boys mostly bond over sports and roughhousing. Not a lot of emotional vulnerability there, we think; that's for girls’ friendships. Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets is an ethnographic study of boys’ friendships that helps us to rewrite those stories we tell.
As Way learned through years of watching boys develop, their friendships in early adolescence are often marked by intense emotional feeling. She quotes a fifteen year old as saying of his closest friend “My best friend and I love each other. That’s it. You have this thing that is deep. So deep it’s within you. You can’t explain it… I guess in life sometimes two people can really really understand each other, and really have a trust respect and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.” Such responses are typical of 14 and 15 year old boys, she found.
However, usually around age 16 boys begin to experience what Way calls a “crisis of connection” as they grow up and encounter the pressures imposed by our hypermasculine culture. Boys, in other words, are not “naturally” emotionally detached and “independent”; rather, they learn how to be this way, at the cost of their relationships with their friends. The consequences can be extreme, as Way notes that the suicide rate for boys in late adolescence spikes to four to five times the rate of girls just at the age when boys lose the emotional language that they had in early and middle adolescence.
We had a conversation about the topic with Niobe Way on the Harvard Press Podcast, which you can hear by clicking the icon below, or pointing your browser here.
As she explains in the conversation, the crisis being faced by boys and young men is not necessarily their lack of male role models, as is often assumed. What boys need, she says, is what everyone needs: “People that allow them to express a full range of human capacity. So (they) are allowed to be empathic, allowed to be emotional. Have intimate friendships, express the desire for those intimate friendships. They need models in their lives that foster those kinds of human needs and allow boys to thrive.”
Those models don't have to be men. Way shows how, in fact, male role models sometimes can compound the problem, in that they’re often products of this same culture and thus can serve to reinforce the crisis of connection. Deep Secrets helps us to break through the stereotypes around the dominant culture of masculinity that all too often result in strict and harmful images of boys and men in society. The book tells a sadly unfamiliar story that has important implications for parents, teachers, and others who work with and live with boys.