When Boys Become Boys

Development, relationships, and masculinity

Boys' Relational Development

The importance of relationships for boys' psychological and social well being

Until recently, little attention has been paid to the centrality of relationships in boys’ development. Although the importance of relationships has been widely acknowledged in most developmental and psychological theories, a relational framework starts from the premise that our lives are inextricably embedded in our interpersonal relationships as well as our social and cultural contexts. From this perspective, boys’ development occurs not in isolation with the option of having relationships but primarily through and within their relationships with other people.

Traditionally, theories of human development and psychology have emphasized individuation and separation as markers of growth, maturity, and, for boys, manhood. Accordingly, boys and girls have learned to show that they are not babies (and boys have learned to show that they are not girls) by demonstrating their ability to stand alone, so to speak. However, a growing body of research indicates that close relationships are crucial to boys’ well being, and that boys continue throughout their development to crave relationships in which they can feel truly known, accepted, supported, and joined.

Although relational theories gained prominence primarily through studies of girls and women, studies of infants have confirmed their relevance to and importance for understanding boys as well. Psychiatrist Daniel Stern pointed out that all humans are born into relationships (otherwise, we could not survive), and therefore our first reality is one based on connection to others. Psychologist Colwyn Trevarthan observed in newborns an innate intersubjectivity that, when supported and developed (e.g., in relationships with caregivers), enables effective learning and communication. Psychologists Edward Tronick and Katherine Weinberg found that infants as young as three months old can be emotionally attuned and appropriately responsive in their relationships. In short, there is evidence that boys, like girls, begin with a fundamental capacity and primary desire to be emotionally close and genuinely connected to other people.

Empirical studies of boys offer evidence that their capacity and desire for close, meaningful relationships persist beyond infancy, through childhood, and into adolescence. In her studies of adolescent boys’ friendships, psychologist Niobe Way acknowledges the obstacles that boys commonly encounter in their efforts to develop close friendships, including issues of trust and cultural stereotypes that denigrate emotional intimacy as feminine. However, Way also underscores the intense emotional intimacy in boys’ close friendships, especially during early and middle adolescence, and emphasizes how boys value and fight to maintain (but often end up losing) their emotional connections to others. Likewise, my studies of boys at early childhood and adolescence reveal their relational capabilities -- including their ability to be self-aware, sensitive to others, and remarkably articulate and authentic in their self-expression -- and their resistance against disconnections as they seek to relate to others in meaningful ways.

By focusing on relationships not just as a backdrop for development but as the means by which boys develop a sense of who they are and how it is possible for them to be with others, a relational framing of boys’ development leads us to reconsider our assumptions about the purpose and value of requiring boys to prove their masculinity and worth by demonstrating their autonomy and self-sufficiency. As we acknowledge and account for the centrality of relationships in boys’ lives, we begin to move towards a more comprehensive understanding of boys’ development and how we can help boys to thrive, rather than merely survive, within the cultures of boyhood and beyond.

Judy Y. Chu, Ed.D. is an Affiliated Faculty member of the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University.

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