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Standing by Our Boys

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Rob Reiner's coming-of-age classic "Stand by Me" is in the midst of celebrating its 25th anniversary. The film, remembered in large part for its sensitive portrayal of intimate male friendships, and the devastating loss of such friendships as boys grow older, continues to be watched by young and old alike and is ranked consistently among the top five of iconic coming-of-age films. One reason for its popularity, as suggested by studies of boys, might be that the film's depiction of friendships during adolescence is hauntingly familiar.

My research with hundreds of white, black, Latino and Asian-American boys over the past 20 years finds that boys have or want close male friendships in which they can share their deepest secrets. These relationships, according to the boys in my research, enhance their sense of self-worth and provide them with the support they need to do well in and out of school. Yet, as they grow older, these boys often lose these friendships, much to their dismay.

Boys' reports of their closest friendships, especially during early and middle adolescence, sound more like "Love Story" than "Lord of the Flies." The boys in my studies say things like, "Sometimes you need to pour your heart out to your friends," or "Without friends to share your deep secrets, you would go wacko." They also say things like, "My best friend and I love each other ... 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's human nature."

Yet as boys reach adulthood, they begin to lose these closest friendships even though they continue to want them, perhaps because they believe such desires make them girlish, childish and/or "gay." Boys may also become more isolated and lonely and describe feeling "wacko" with grief over such losses. When asked about friendships during late adolescence, the boys who participated in my research sometimes said things such as, "It's like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends and then general friends become acquaintances." Talking about the loss of friendships, another boy from my research said, "That was the only person that I could trust, and we talked about everything. So I feel pretty lonely and sometimes depressed ... I think that it will never be the same, you know. I think that when you have a real friend and you lose him, I don't think you find another one like him."

Like the boys in "Stand by Me," the boys in my studies, as well as those in other studies reveal the significance of friendships for their mental health, as well as their physical health and their ability to achieve in school. Some boys also reveal the loss they experience during late adolescence is not from a lack of interest but a product of a culture that makes intimate friendships into a girly or gay thing. Other scholars have also noted these patterns.

Boys are asking us, as Rob Reiner's boys did, to stand by them, help them maintain their close male friendships and not equate intimate friendships with a sex and a sexuality. Wanting and having friendships in which deep secrets are shared is not simply a desire and capacity of girls and gay boys, but of all humans, regardless of their sex and sexuality. It's time to stand by our boys and listen to what they are telling us.

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