Artem Podrez/pexels
Artem Podrez/pexels

When Your Child Has a Boy-Girl Friendship

Q: My son is eight, and his best friend is a girl. We’re neighbors with her family, so the kids see each other often. They get along great and have so much fun playing together, but lately, my son is complaining that the kids at school are teasing him about having a “girlfriend.” There’s nothing romantic about their friendship, but he’s embarrassed and has even started ignoring his friend at school to try to avoid being teased. What can I do to help protect their friendship?

You can see it on any playground: from about age four through the elementary school years, boys play mostly with boys, and girls play mostly with girls. This happens across cultures. around the world.

Gender segregation is often policed by children, who are quick to point out what is a “girl thing” or a “boy thing.” In some groups, there’s not only segregation but outright rivalry and dislike between boys and girls.

On the other hand, a recent study by Halim and colleagues, involving a diverse group of 2nd and 4th graders, found that two-thirds of the kids had other-gender friends. Over the course of a year, gaining more other-gender friendships led kids to more positive attitudes and feelings toward the other gender. Having more positive attitudes was also linked to having more other-gender friends.

This fits with a mountain of other research showing that positive interactions with someone from another group decrease prejudice. Having other-gender friends allows children to see them as regular people rather than mysterious, different, and even frightening “others.” Other-gender friendships can be a good foundation for healthy adult relationships, romantic or otherwise.

In your son’s case, it would be a shame if peer pressure hurt his happy friendship with the neighbor girl. There’s no guarantee this friendship will last forever, but here are some ways you could support it:

– Be matter-of-fact about the friendship

Treat this friendship as you would any other friendship. Show no more or less interest in this relationship than you would in his friendships with other boys. Also, don’t let family members tease your child about having a girlfriend because that would make him feel self-conscious.

– Include the other-gender friend in family outings

Bringing the neighbor girl along on your family outings or including her in your family gatherings (on her own or with her family) is a great way to support the friendship and not make it seem like “dating.”

– Equip your child to handle teasing

You may want to help your child figure out some low-key responses to teasing. If other kids ask, “Is that your girlfriend?”, he could say, “No, she’s my pal” or “She’s a friend who happens to be a girl.” If they smirk and say, “She likes you!”, your child could say, “So what?”, or, if he wants to be a little sassy, he could reply, “Of course! I’m a likable guy!” If they giggle and chant about sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G, your child could just roll his eyes and say “Grow up!” in a bored tone of voice. Role play can be useful for figuring out and practicing responses that are a good fit for your child.

– Follow your child’s lead

It’s his friendship, so you need to follow his lead about how close he wants to be with the neighbor girl. Being careful not to push your ideas of how their friendship should look gives him room to figure that out himself.

It’s possible your son and his friend have decided that it’s easier just to hang out outside of school. While this may not be an idealistically pure solution, it could be a practical one. The in-school vs out-of-school division could also give both kids a chance to play with other friends sometimes.

Kids change a lot as they grow, so it’s likely that your son’s friendship with the neighbor girl will change over time. It’s up to the two of them to figure out what they want their friendship to look like.

– Insist on kindness

You can’t make your son stay close friends with the neighbor girl, but you can insist that he be kind to her. If he wants to be friends, he needs to put time and effort into the friendship. If he wants their friendship to change somehow, it’s usually kinder to talk about what he wants than to leave his friend guessing. Asking himself, “How would I want to be treated if I were in that situation?” is useful for imagining her perspective and choosing how to respond.

For Further Reading

Fabes, R. A., Martin, C. L., Hanish, L. D., & DeLay, D. (2018). Gender integration in coeducational classrooms: Advancing educational research and practice. School Psychology Quarterly33(2), 182-190.
Halim, M. D., Martin, C. L., Andrews, N., Zosuls, K. M., & Ruble, D. N. (2021). Enjoying each other’s company: Gaining other-gender friendships promotes positive other-gender attitudes among ethnically diverse children. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47, 1635-1653.



Can Boys and Girls Be Friends? (Article)

When Your Child… Gets Teased by a Friend (Article)

Is Your Child a Good Friend? (Article)

Growing Friendships (Book)

Friendship Skills – FOR KIDS! (Webinar)

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.