True story: I was too scared to hug my guy friends in middle school.
I can only imagine that this was a subconscious result of my sweet mama’s cautioning about boys throughout my life. I liked my friends and I wanted to express my affection for them in a healthy way, like a hug. But Mama Espinoza’s voice was always in my head about not giving guy friends ideas about anything more than friendship, and so that’s how I mastered the art of the high five.
If your teen is anything like I was, they probably got to middle school and realized their circle of friends was no longer composed of friends of the same sex as them. In my case, it was my eighth-grade year when a noticeable shift occurred. I was spending a lot of time with guy friends in between classes, at lunch, and after school. By the time I got to high school, it was safe to say that I was spending most of my time with a couple of solid male friends — they were my most reliable study buddies, the most frequent recipients of my text messages, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I hit the jackpot with some really good guy pals and am even more blessed because those friends are in my life to this day.
For all their complexities, I actually am a huge advocate for male-female friendships between young people. And I don’t mean the kind where they see each other in passing in between periods or talk on occasion because they happen to sit next to each other in math class. I am also not referring to the “be friends first” and then when you [inevitably] date it will be so much better/ more meaningful/ far deeper (you fill in the adjectives). No, I am referring to deep friendships in which they can learn and grow from their experience of caring for someone of the opposite sex without secretly hoping for a romantic prospect. (And who knows, maybe they will even hug each other on occasion!)
As I look to this generation of young people, I am more convinced that they are the generation that is going to flip our views on opposite-sex friendships. They are changing the world in so many regards — why not in this way? As Gen Z looks to navigate the seemingly tricky territory of male-female friendships, it is important that they are reminded of a few key things:
Romance Isn’t the Only Good
I know that friendship doesn’t exactly sell in the entertainment business. Just look at the top box office hits or trending Billboard tunes and notice that there aren’t many references to two people in opposite-sex friendships. Stories of platonic relationships don’t necessarily stir our hearts or move us to tears in the way that romance does. But romance is not the only good that is available in the scope of male-female relationships. Friendship is also very, very good! Friendship, in general, has a great capacity to stretch us. When we enter into purely platonic relationships, we are challenged to love in deep and expansive ways. (Obviously, in a healthy romantic relationship, this can happen too — but bear with me as I talk about this in the context of just friends.) Friends have a way of drawing us out of ourselves and into community with another, while also still giving us room to grow individually. If we tell young men and women that friendship between them cannot end in anything but intense heartbreak or the best kind of romance, we are robbing them of an opportunity to have something that is so good for them — namely the chance to care deeply for another without the expectation or need for it to become anything else.
If we encourage teens to develop good and deep friendships with the opposite sex, we are encouraging them to seek friendship for friendship’s sake. (BTW, there are many saints who model this for us, but Sts. Francis and Clare stand out as opposite-sex friendship champs.) Teens should be encouraged to take some of the pressure off of their male-female friendships by being reminded that romance doesn’t have to be the end goal, and that there is a lot of goodness in store for them from sharing life through friendship with someone of the opposite sex.
Complementarity Isn’t Just for Marriage
As Catholics, we tend to go way out of our way to emphasize the complementarity of male and female. It doesn’t take a trained scientist to note that men and women are different, but we do often need some extra help in recognizing the inherent worth found in both sexes. This is where the idea of complementarity shines because it upholds the differences in both, while also asserting the necessity of both in a way that doesn’t make one less than the other. But sometimes I worry that we only talk about complementarity in the context of sex, marriage, parenting, child-raising, etc. Teens ought to be given firsthand examples of how complementarity is real and applicable in their own everyday life as well.
It is precisely because of our conviction that complementarity is part of God’s design for the world that we ought to celebrate friendships of the opposite sex among young people. Young men should earn the right to a young woman’s opinions, thoughts, ideas, and contributions through friendship — and vice versa. In male-female friendships, teens will learn just how necessary the worldview of the opposite gender can be to their own life, hopes, dreams, ambitions, worries, and concerns. To encourage opposite-sex friendships is to encourage young people to seek out differing perspectives, to ask questions, to listen well, and to find ways to communicate in positive and healthy ways. If they can do this as young people, they will be able to continue to grow in this way as adults and in whatever vocation they are led to through their discipleship.
Male-Female Friendship is Fun
Now that we have established how good it can be when young men and women are friends, and understand the positive effects it can have because of the gift of complementarity, we can now focus on how fun male-female friendships can be! Teens have a lot of life yet to live, during which they can worry about “dating to marry” or freak out about a potential spouse. Some might never really date and be called into a life of celibacy through religious life, priesthood, or consecrated virginity. Others might spend years of adulthood going on first dates, having “define the relationship” conversations, and may even discern marriage with multiple partners before making a life with someone. This is all the more reason for you, as a loving parent, to remind them that this time of their life is special because they have the freedom to get to know others (as well as themselves) through the fun and awesome gift of friendship.
Help teens just enjoy the company of their opposite-sex friends — yes, highlight the need for those friendships to include respect and boundaries, but ultimately give them space to just feel happy about their male-female friendships, not overly stressed about them. Encourage them to pray for each other. Champion their crazy adventures. Let them hang out in your home. If adults tease about them being an item, reroute the conversation and save them from the embarrassment. Keep an open-door policy with your teen about this and all of the friendships in their lives, encouraging them to share what it is they love about their friend(s) and how they are striving to always be a good friend in return.
Let Them Be Friends!
Deep meaningful friendships between young men and women can and should happen — they are good and point out the great beauty of complementary, and hopefully are fun for the teens who experience them! If you as a parent celebrate the friendship your teen shares with someone of the opposite sex, it will seem all the more normal and good to your teen, and will likely help them to pursue these kinds of friendships — in healthy and holy ways — in the future.