At the same time, absolutely we live in a culture and a society where we are perceived in our bodies, and people respond to us accordingly. So boys and girls do grow up in a gendered society, as Michael Kimmel terms it. The pronouns are different, the expectations are different. When I was pregnant with my son, the first thing people would ask me was, is it a boy or a girl? And what do they think that tells them? And my sister-in-law, who knows what I study, said, "Oh, well you'll know what personality he'll have, and what he'll be when he grows up, and what sort of relationship we'll have with him," all based on the fact that he has a penis rather than a vagina.
So I want to refrain from saying that a girl must be this or a boy must be this, and really try to keep an open mind about what they're capable of. And infant studies show us that both boys and girls are born with a capacity for and a fundamental desire for relationships—to be close and to be connected. And if anything they find that boy babies need more help regulating themselves. When they are upset they need their primary caregiver to help them regulate and come back to a feeling of contentment.
So when you look at infant studies which show that boys and girls both seek connection to other people, and then at these later reports when they get to adolescence where boys are reporting fewer close relationships, lower levels of intimacy within their close relationships, then that kind of suggests that for boys, their socialization and development are associated with a move out of relationships. They start out wanting and thriving in relationships, and then they are moved away from those protective relationships, and there's a cost.
The study mostly focuses on relationships between boys, and discusses how learning to be boys involves hiding feelings, or distancing emotions. Were the boys affected by their relationships with girls in the class at all? Were they freer to express emotion in those interactions?
Well, they created this "Mean Team," which was a club created by the boys for the boys for the purpose of acting against girls. So after they created that, at least on the surface, they would say, oh we don't play with girls.
But as Jake, one of the boys, articulated when I met with him, he said, "I'm actually friends with the girls but I don't let Mikey find out, because if he finds out he'll fire me from his team, and then I won't have a team and that would be a bummer."
So, with Jake, his parents were really supportive and would arrange for him to have playdates at home, which the other boys didn't necessarily know about since they were out of view. Whereas Rob, who was the one who said, "I'm not friends with the girls because I'm friends with the boys," because he had internalized that rules, he didn't have the options to seek closeness anywhere other than with his boy relationships. And as a result it was either be with the boys or be alone, and at least at the endpoint of my book he had opted just to be alone, and that was a consequence he was willing to accept in order to make his own decisions.