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Dads: Helping Boys Form Deep Friendships

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And as the school year is just starting, we decided to have another conversation about friendships between boys.

Recently, we spoke with Niobe Way. She's a professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of the book, "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection."

She spent some 20 years researching how boys relate to one another and she said that they actually have a deep yearning for intimacy with other boys. Here's a clip from that conversation.


NIOBE WAY: It really struck me how much boys were talking about their friendships and I - really surprised me because I expected them to be talking about their girlfriends or maybe their parents or maybe their teachers. But they really were almost consumed with talking about their friendships and the ins and outs of their friendships. And it really was in such a contrast from what sort of popular culture frames boys and certainly boys' friendships.

MARTIN: We had that conversation with Professor Way, along with two of our regular guests, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner. But, as you might imagine, we also wanted to know what dads have to say about boys' friendships, particularly because they were once boys themselves.

So here to have that conversation is attorney Glenn Ivey. He's the former state's attorney for Prince Georges County in Maryland. He's also the husband of Jolene Ivey. They have five sons together.

Also with us, investment banker Perry Steiner. He's the manager of a private equity firm in suburban Washington, DC. He's also the husband of Leslie Morgan Steiner and they have one son together.

And also with us, Malik Washington. He is a young journalist in Washington. He is also a part of the TELL ME MORE staff and we decided to get his perspective on this, although he's not a dad yet.

Welcome to you all.



GLENN IVEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: First, I wanted to start with you. I wanted to ask each of you, do you buy the idea that boys actually do have deep and intimate relationships with each other in a way that is different from the way those relationships are often portrayed? Malik?

WASHINGTON: Of course, I think that, you know, people have always misunderstood the friendships that men have and think that we're just, you know, people who hang out and just have fun, play sports together, go to the bar.

But, I mean, I've always had strong relationships with other men who are my friends. I mean, we share with each other our secrets. We talk about our lives and I've never felt like, you know, that there wasn't a form of intimacy with my male friends.

MARTIN: Glenn, what about you?

IVEY: Yeah. I think that's right. I mean, I think, for me, it toned down a little bit after I went into politics because it's such a difficult profession, I think, from a sharing-secrets standpoint. But certainly, prior to that, the guys I played basketball with as a kid are still great friends, by and large.

And you know, you look at my father-in-law, for example, who lives with us. He's 93 now, but the guys he talks about are, you know, guys that he served in the military with and has stayed in touch with for - I mean, we're talking World War II, so 60 years later, he's still in touch with those guys that are still around. Yeah.

MARTIN: What about you, Perry? What do you think?

STEINER: Yeah. I mean, I think friendships among men is what keeps us centered and keeps us strong. I look at my own relationships and, actually, I have many friends, but my two closest friends are my two closest friends from growing up. And the ability to share our innermost thoughts or fears and, you know, the things that we're excited about and even to be able to brag to them. But I mean, brag in a good way, not feeling like you're bragging, but just really talking about the accomplishments of your kids or your life or what's going on. It's a really wonderful thing.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that was interesting to me is that Professor Way makes the point that, when relationships among boys and men are kind of described in the culture, it's either about boys and men getting each other into trouble, you know, like gang relationships - okay - where they drive each other to do messed up things.

You know, or it's sexualized, you know, and it's this kind of fraught with sexual tension, which is not at all the way any of you all described it. Like, for example, I'll play a clip from the conversation we had with the moms. This is Jolene, Glenn's wife, talking about your son, Julian, and his best friend who just went away to college. I'll just play that clip.


JOLENE IVEY: Whenever they would talk about each other, they would always say, you know, how much they love each other, how close they were, but Julian would always say, but no homo.

MARTIN: Meaning - and this is a term that a lot of people - I mean, and I'm sorry if this term offends some people, but the whole point is that this is something that - here you all are laughing, but feeling a need to say, this is not a sexual relationship. This is something different.

Malik, you were laughing.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I think that that just goes to just male friendships being so misunderstood, where if somebody, especially a young man says well, I love my friend, somebody takes that a completely different way than it supposed to be. And I think that, you know, men aren't comfortable saying all the time that day love somebody or love another man without people taking it out of context. And I think that's the reason, part of the reason that people feel like they have to say no homo, with other reasons, of course, the homophobia that we experience in our culture.

MARTIN: But there is homophobia directed toward women. And I have to say, I have no problem telling my female friends I love them or saying how much I love my girls or whatever. Do you think that's like a new generational thing or is that what do you think?

WASHINGTON: I think it has to do with masculinity and this whole idea of what masculinity is, and that we're not necessarily supposed to be emotional. We're not supposed to love other people unless it's somebody that we're romantically and sexually involved with. That's understood. If I say I love my girlfriend, I love my wife. But to say I love my friend, now people don't understand that relationship.

MARTIN: Glenn, what about you? What do you think? I mean...

IVEY: Well, I guess I was a little surprised because I think, you know, with the gay rights movement and the progress, especially the younger generations have made, I thought there would have been sort of less concern about that, you know, sort of like that "Seinfeld," you know, not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that episode. But like when I was a kid, for example, you know, girlfriends having a tough day, you know, they would say stuff like well, you know, we got in bed together and just, you know, ate chocolates. Or, you know, she gave me a back rub or something along those lines.

Guys, you know, at least with my group we weren't doing that. You know, there's a line. You know, you'll be with your guys and I got your back and that sort of thing, but sort of the physical touching, unless you just won a championship...


MARTIN: In which case?

IVEY: Then it's okay. Otherwise, no.

MARTIN: Perry, what about you?

STEINER: Yeah. I think it's interesting, you brought up generational differences. I think there are some generational differences, and I think there's a lot more comfort today with physical affection amongst males than there was when, you know, when I was growing up. I'm 45 years old to put it in perspective. But I've always been very warm with my very close friends. I hug them when I see them. Sometimes we'll actually walk down the street with our arm around each other, really, like because these are guys that I don't see all the time. They live in different parts of the country.

And growing up, my father and my grandfather were both European, one Austrian, one Polish, they always hugged and kissed me hello and goodbye and that was unusual amongst my friends. Most dads and sons did not do that and I really noticed that as a kid. And the first time I said to my dad when I noticed that other people didn't do it, I said Dad, how come other people don't do it? He said, you know, it doesn't matter what other people do. This is what we do. And I think that - and I became very comfortable with it and I think that made me also be much more comfortable with hugging my friends or putting my arm around them.

And in today's generation, I mean everything from, you know, beer commercials, you know, the bro hug or the NBA hug, that's just part of the vernacular today and I don't think that was there 20 years ago.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly parenting conversation, and this week we're talking with the dads about boy's friendships. We recently had a conversation with a panel of moms about the relationships boys have with each other. We decided that, you know, it wasn't fair to keep it to ourselves, so we're speaking with dads, Glenn Ivey and Perry Steiner, and also with us a young male journalist, Malik Washington. He's giving another generational perspective here.

I do want to talk a little bit more though Glenn, about this whole question of the idea that, you know, when boys do have deep relationships with each other it's generally in the service of something bad, like the gangs being kind of the extreme example of this, like boys who all, you know, they all get together to go, you know, spray graffiti someplace. Or they all get together to, you know, knock over a car. But we don't often hear about boys getting together to do something, you know, positive - to help each other through school or something. And when we do it's like, oh my God, we had to write a book about it.


MARTIN: You know? But I did want to ask you though, is there - do you think that that's from your experience in law enforcement, do you find that the posse is in part why boys get into trouble because of the peer pressure? And do you think that's a bigger issue with boys than with girls?

IVEY: I mean you've got girl gangs coming along now too and girl posses, at least in this area, so I would say that's less and less the case. I think though what you're hearing from us is that there's going to be that kind of expression and desire to have those kinds of relationships. And, you know, if you kind of look at it, I didn't do the studies that she did, but a lot of times, you know, a gang and a team don't look all that different.

You know, you can talk about we've got freshman, you've got the entry levels, there's a desire to be part of that team, we work together, there's senior leadership, there's a structure and a hierarchy. And that's true with teams. It's true with platoons. It's true with almost any kind of organization you talk about. And as long as you have positive leadership at the head of it, you can take the boys in a positive direction. If you have negative leadership at the top you can pull them in that direction too. So I always harp on my kids, you know, positive leadership for that reason and find the right kind of peer group for that reason.

MARTIN: Malik, you wanted to add something?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean I have to say that has always bothered me, this idea that, you know, some, you know, boys getting each other into trouble or just male friends getting each other into trouble. And then one of the examples I think of is, you know, for instance in dating and, you know, girlfriends always tend to think that our friend is the bad guy.


WASHINGTON: He's the one in our ear. You know, don't listen to him. He's going to tell you this and tell you that. And it's really different. I know in my friends it's always been like, you know, I have a good friend who was dating a young lady and I said look, you know this young lady is a good woman. Okay, you need to handle your business and ensure that you're doing the proper things in this relationship and make it right, which is the complete opposite that I think a lot of women think that we do.

I think a lot of women think I'm going to come in and say hey, you know what? You don't need to be with her. Get her out. Hang out with me. Come to the bar. Come to the party. And it's really a lot different. We have an accountability thing as male friends where a lot of times when I see a friend slipping and I say hey, you know, you need to pick this up. You know, you need to get your grades up. Or, you know, I see that you're not handling this part of your life. You're not praying enough. Any little thing in different aspects of our lives we have a very serious accountability thing and I think that is just, it's just not understood.

MARTIN: So I did want to ask in the time that we have left, we try to leave people with some practical suggestions on how to achieve the kind of intimacy that they would like to see, either for themselves or particularly for their boys - the little boys, younger boys. And I just wanted to ask if you have any suggestions for how either as a parent or as a friend yourself or as a mentor.

Malik, you're at a point where you're mentoring. You're not a parent yourself but you are a mentor. Are there ways you think? Are there things that people can be doing to support positive relationships among young men who desire it and perhaps don't have it, or to support those who do have that? What would you say?

WASHINGTON: Right. Well, what I always say particularly when I mentor is to understand your relationships. And in the context of friendships is to understand what you - you have different friends for different reasons, OK? You may have a friend because you're on a sports team together. You may have a friend because you have this particular interest. But know the role that your friend plays in your life and know if you take out this one element in your relationship are you still going to have each other's back? Are you still going to have an intimate friendship?

MARTIN: Glenn, what about you? What are the ways - are there ways in which you actively kind of support and try to shape the relationships lead your boys in the relationships that they have with other boys? I know one of the points that Jolene made in our conversation is that she talked about the fact that she tries to make it convenient for the boys to hang out with people who she thinks are positive and supportive. And she tries to make it less convenient to hangout with the people who she observes are not.


IVEY: Yeah, I don't do that. I support positive relationships and I try and encourage them to think about the relationships they have. Like why is it, you know, you're tight with this guy? Or for example, we're the house that the kids play at on the street just naturally. And so I for the start of the school year I was like look, you can come Monday through Thursday, but you've got to bring your books with you. Now that's been pretty controversial, but I came home from work the other day and none of the kids had their books. And so I'm trying to impose that so that, you know, they're having a positive influence on each other.

So even if I'm coming home late, hopefully I'll come home and they're actually already studying as opposed to me having to get them started on it, but push them in a positive direction, and then to think in terms of sorting out who your friends really are.

MARTIN: Perry, how about you?

STEINER: Yes. I mean some of the things that we've done similar to Glenn is number one, we've made our house extremely kid friendly, so we have kids over all the time. Because we also like to keep an eye on the kids as opposed to who knows what they're doing at somebody else's house. And we've got all kinds of, you know, kind of tricks for making our house kid friendly. But one of the things that I've done as a dad and I didn't really envision it this way, but I started coaching my son's soccer and basketball teams when he was five years old and I'm still with those kids and my son is now 14 years old.

And it gives you as a parent a very unique relationship with your son's friends. And I do it for my daughter's as well. Because I'm not someone who they're just like oh hi, Mr. Steiner and very standoff. It's just hey coach, what's going on? And it's given me an opportunity to also become close to our kids friends and just to make them very at ease talking to us and very at ease being at our home. And also you see on the athletic field, you really - you see what kids are really like. And yes, I do have my favorites and, you know, I do have, you know, some that are not my favorites. But, you know, I wouldn't encourage or discourage our kids from hanging out with them.

MARTIN: Glenn, I'm going to ask you a final thought, which is that there will be people who are listening to our conversations who are single parents, particularly single moms...

IVEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...who don't have a partner on an ongoing basis in the home to model what you're talking about. Do have a specific advice though for women who are raising boys.

IVEY: Yeah. Well, I mean I think you try and find environments. Though the single moms I've seen raising boys who've been the most successful have had other males around who have been sort of setting good positive examples for the boy. And it can be a coach - coaches in particular have a lot of power over young males that are interested in sports. It's amazing from the standpoint of not teaching the skills but just, you know, how to deal with adversity, you know, how to be supportive of your teammates, all that stuff can really make a difference.

And it can other - I mean like Mr. Jones next door or, you know, teachers. A lot of people do it through their churches or places of worship, uncles. I mean those are the sorts of relationships that I think you really need to try and cultivate and put the kid in. And sometimes there are structural versions like Big Brother and that sort of thing. Those can get a little hard to sustain sometimes has been my experience, but I think they have their place.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Anybody else? Malik?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. And I can say that, and I can speak from my own experience, being a son who's been raised by a single mother, my mother was very good at putting me in positions where I would be around other men, older men, specifically other black men, to have a role model. And obviously I didn't realize what she was doing then. But when I look back now and I see my mother found a way to make sure that I had good male role models in my life. So I think that's very important.


MARTIN: Perry?

STEINER: And I'd say a lot of the same. I was actually raised by a single mother as well. I was very close to my dad, who lived about 45 minutes away and my grandfather who lived about 15 minutes away, so they were very strong male influences in my life. But, you know, my mom, she made me do everything that we needed to. I went to the grocery store with her. I helped her cook. I just, it's like she kept me saying hey, this is what it takes to run a household and we're kind of in this together. And it's part your responsibility and part my responsibility. She gave me a lot of responsibilities in the household.

And then also as I became a teenager, she gave me a tremendous amount of freedom and responsibility and I was fortunate not to - I mean I definitely abused it sometimes but fortunately not to get myself in too much trouble. And she really gave me every opportunity to be on sports teams and to see my male friends and have sleepovers with them whenever I wanted, just gave me a lot of freedom, which I think I really appreciated.

MARTIN: Perry Steiner is a managing partner of the private equity firm Arlington Capital Partners. He also happens to be the husband of another of our regular contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner. Glenn Ivey is a partner with Venable LLP. He's also a former state's attorney for Prince George's County, Maryland. He happens to be the husband of our regular parenting contributor Jolene Ivey. And Malik Washington is a husband in training.


MARTIN: He's a journalist in Washington. He's also a part of the TELL ME MORE staff. And they were all kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

STEINER: Thank you.

IVEY: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR Staff