This is a picture one of my son’s first grade friends, another boy, made for him. I couldn’t help but smile at the honest, fearless expression of friendship captured in the drawing.
There are some unspoken guidelines for showing affection that boys and men begin to follow at a young age. My first grader already resists hugging, sometimes even touching, his younger brother. Of course, some of this is the normal dynamic between brothers. Some of it is the “boy code.” Some of it is just his natural style. While it’s okay for boys to have different comfort levels with and ways of expressing affection, I believe it’s important for ALL boys to show and experience brotherly love.
Love? Yes. In Greek they call it phileo: brotherly love, the kind that friends, teammates, soldiers, and sometimes even coworkers develop for one another. It’s the kind of love that gets lost in a culture that’s irrationally preoccupied with image, achievement, and homophobia.
The truth is, boys are lost without phileo. It’s one of the ways they find their place in the world. I honestly think they NEED it for healthy development. If we were really honest with ourselves, most men would acknowledge that we suffer from the lack of it as well. We need to stick up for our buddies. Defend them. Support them. Care for them. Feel sadness for them and compassion. We need to know that our comrades feel the same for us.
Phileo is like a magic coin. When you give it away, you find two more in your pocket. I’m thankful that my son’s friend got to enjoy the happy feeling that comes when someone receives and appreciates your expression of brotherly affection. At their age, it’s still okay to do. But even for first graders, fear starts to creep in.
For boys, fear begins to whisper questions like:
- What if they laugh?
- What if they say, “Eeeww, they’re holding hands.”
- What did (insert well meaning adult) mean when they said I shouldn’t give pictures like that to other boys?
- Am I weird because I feel affection for a friend?
- Is there something wrong with me?
For dads the questions can be the similar:
- What if someone teases him?
- What if others see his drawing?
- Am I doing my job if I DON’T tell him not to give cards and hugs to other boys?
- Will I raise him to be gay if I let him do that?
All of these questions come from fear, and living in fear is a crummy way to parent and an even worse way to grow up. It’s important that we lay a foundation of healthy love for our sons and help them feel safe to show their feelings to us and their friends in smart ways.
Here are a few ideas:
- Tell your son you love him at home. Yes, it can feel awkward. That awkward feeling is fear, and men face their fears. If a side hug and “I love you” aren’t part of your interactions, figure out a way to work it in. Use humor if that makes it easier. Try something like, “What would you say if I told you I loved you?” The more you do it, the easier it gets.
- Make a code word. This is especially helpful for downloading love to your son if he needs it when you’re out in public. For me and my son, the code phrase we agreed on goes like this. I say: “Do you want some coffee?” He knows that means “I love you.” Then he says: ”No, I hate coffee.” I know that means, “I love you too.” Now that it has become a mutually recognized code, he will sometimes initiate and say, “Dad do you want some coffee?” I’ll respond with, “Yes, I love coffee.” I suppose it’s an odd little ritual, but it works for us.
- Encourage your son to appreciate his friends. Talk about practical ways to do this, such as:
- Do something nice for a friend for no reason (aka pay it forward)
- Notice when a friend could use help…and then help.
- If someone helps him, encourage your son to tell the person about the difference they made.
- Stick up for or defend a friend.
- Be loyal, even if others aren’t.
- When others reject or mistreat his overtures of friendship (which some will), let him tell you how it feels. Acknowledge the feeling without trying to fix it (“Ouch, that hurts”). Encourage him to keep being a good friend. When boys take the high road, it’s not uncommon for good friendships to grow out of these situations in the long run.
What ideas do you have?