I was going through old emails the other day, and toward the bottom of my inbox was an almost 4-year-old message from a friend with the subject line “a few pics from our walk.” I knew what I would find in the email, but I opened it anyway. Inside were a handful photos of my son with his oldest friend — a little girl named Sophia.
The two of them have known each other since they were soft and chubby babies when we met through a local parenting group, though back then their relationship was more of a mutual love of drooling than a friendship. Thanks to a weekly playgroup, a deep friendship grew between moms and the children alike. And then three years later, by an amazing stroke of luck, our families ended up moving just two blocks from each other in the same suburban town. The friendship continued to grow. My son and his friend were in many of the same activities, so we carpooled and took turns hosting playdates and outings with our children.
When my son and his friend started school, their circle of same-gender friends grew, and although they often preferred to play with friends of the same gender at recess, a unique bond between them persisted. They go to different schools now so we no longer carpool, and they are in different activities. She loves ice skating and dance, my son plays baseball and basketball. Our families see each other less often these days due to the general busyness of life and conflicting schedules. But even though my son doesn’t see his friend as often anymore, when we do get together that unique bond is still there.
Both of my sons’ earliest — and in many ways closest — friendships were with girls. My younger son’s first friend was a little girl named Abby, who is the sister of my older son’s friend. Their friendship might have been born out of necessity as they were carted along to their older siblings’ activities, but over the course of the past seven years, it has grown into a legitimate friendship, independent and separate from the friendship of their older siblings.
There is a freedom in these cross-gender friendships that doesn’t always exist in same-gender friendships. There are no expectations, no competition, and no pressure to be anything other than who they are. They play pirates and make books and ride scooters. They play board games and color pictures and pretend to be orphaned siblings on a wild adventure. Nothing is designated as a “boy thing” or a “girl thing,” just ways to play and enjoy one another’s company.
When my sons are with their female friends, I see them come alive in a way they don’t always do when they are with same-gender friends. When they are together, their personalities complement each other in a way that allows them to become something bigger than the sum of their parts. In other words, they bring out the best in each other.
Not only have these cross-gender friendships allowed my sons to fully be themselves, but because my sons don’t have a sister, they fill an otherwise gaping void. I firmly believe that these cross-gender friendships have enabled, and will continue to enable, my sons to be better men.
Parents sometimes make light of cross-gender friendships with comments about some kind of future romance, but I’ve never felt the need to do that. Honestly, joking about these friendships turning into a future romance would have cheapened them a bit because they are beautiful right now without any element of future plans or romantic feelings.
Both of my sons are fortunate to have a wide array of friends, with a smaller and tighter cadre of really good friends, most of whom are boys. And watching these friendships develop and grow fills me with an indescribable joy that, honestly, is a lifeline sometimes.
Parenting is really hard, and most of the time I feel like I’m just hanging on to my hat, but there are moments that make it all worthwhile. There are moments — however fleeting — that make my heart swell to near bursting. There are moments so inexplicably good and true that it actually feels like I might be touching the thin space between the earthly side of things and the sacred side. Watching my children with their friends — all of their friends, boys and girls — is among those moments. When your child is good friends with good people there is an undeniable faith that all is right in the world.
I have no idea what will come of my sons’ friendships with these two sweet and amazing girls, but I will continue to do everything in my power to support and encourage these friendships. Not just because friendship is special in its own right, but because they give my sons something other friendships can’t, for they are the closest thing my sons will ever have to a sister.