How Boys and Girls Make Friends
This post continues a series designed to learn about how friendships are formed and maintained. Previous posts have explored a wide range of fields: empathy, men’s friendship, unhealthy connections, first impressions, the significance of friendship, and friendshifts. Today, we’re pleased to be talking with Dana Kerford.
Meet Dana Kerford
As a teacher, Dana noticed the intensity and complexity of friendships for young girls. Inspired by her students, she began researching relational aggression, conflict resolution, and the inner workings of female relationships. This led her to launch the GirlPower friendship program in 2009, as well as write The Friendship Project—a workbook for parents and tween girls—in 2012. In 2014, she added GirlPower’s brother program, GoodGuys.
Kids and Friendship
Sarah: I have a teaching background too. And I read somewhere that your work around "friendship" came out of your observations as a teacher. Can you tell us the story briefly?
Dana: I was teaching at a private school in Canada and noticed that my students, particularly my girls at the time, weren’t performing well academically if they were in a ‘fight’ with a friend. I saw them distracted, ‘stuck’, and unable to focus on anything other than the issue with their friend. In addition, I saw parents struggling with how to best support them and often heard parents tell their daughters, “Just ignore her! She’s just jealous!” I couldn’t sit back and watch girls follow in the footsteps of some of these unhealthy behaviors that have earned girls and women a reputation of being mean, catty, and gossipy. Knowing my students couldn’t ‘just ignore it’ and the importance of learning how to effectively resolve conflict, I started to search for a program to help my students. I couldn’t find one. I found lots of generic ‘friendship lessons’, but couldn’t find one that was practical, skills-based, step-by-step, and that really tapped into the specific issues the girls were dealing with.
So, I researched like a crazy person and pieced together a six-week afterschool club and called it, GirlPower! I had 53 girls sign up for that very first session back in 2009 and, I always say, those six weeks and those 53 girls completely changed my life. I saw that quiet, shy, timid girl start to walk a little taller and use her voice. And, I saw that hands-on-the- hips, snapping-her-fingers kind of girl soften and find a more tender approach. Seeing the massive changes in the girls, their improved confidence and ability to effectively handle the ups and downs in friendship, I knew I needed to devote my life to this.
Sarah: I love how passionate you were and are about helping girls build healthy friendships. I know your work took a turn to support boys socially as well. So tell me...what about the boys?
Dana: After working with tens of thousands of girls around the world, the #1 question when we’d go into a co-ed school was, “What about the boys?” Knowing that boys, too, have fights with their friends and were also choosing inappropriate ways to manage conflict, I did a whole bunch of research and conducted pilots with hundreds of boys across Canada, USA, and Australia. The boys blew my mind, openly sharing their stories and very complicated experiences in friendship. I realized quite quickly that boys’ experience in friendship is far more the same than it is different to girls’ experience. And, a lot of behaviors we typically attribute to girls (relational aggression like alliance-building, exclusion, The Silent Treatment), the boys are experiencing too.
Sarah: What are the main differences you observed between how friendships work for boys vs. how it works for girls?
Dana: Boys don’t talk to anyone about it and are expected to just deal with it! That process was extremely emotional for me, as I came away with a sense of urgency around helping boys. While girls are told to “Just ignore her! She’s just jealous!”, the boys are told to “Suck it up! Be a man!” There were an alarming number of boys who told us they have been encouraged to get physical with their friend (e.g. “Just punch him the next time he does it. He won’t do it to you again!”), often by their fathers. And, the topic of suicide and feelings of hopelessness came up more times than I ever expected. Needless to say, we launched GirlPower’s brother program, GoodGuys, in 2014. Since then, we have evolved into a co-ed program and are rebranding ourselves as URSTRONG. Knowing what I know now, if I were to do it all over again, it would have been a co-ed program from the start.
Special thanks to Dana Kerford for taking the time to share her insights with Huffington Post readers this week. Check back soon for Part B of this interview in our next installment of the Making Friends series.
Read the next post in this series on friendship here. Or check out Truth or Dare: The Podcast That Boosts Your Social Health.