Skip to main content

Educator Joseph Derrick Nelson on Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys

Joseph Derrick Watson

Washington Post: 9 ways to help boys form the close friendships they crave

The seventh-grade boys at George Jackson Academy in New York City snickered when developmental psychologist Niobe Way told them about a teen who loved his best friend. She asked them what was funny, and a student said, “The dude sounds gay.”

Way expected that reaction. Challenging male stereotypes is part of her work with the Listening Project at New York University, which aims to help boys build their capacity for relationships. “What would you say if I told you that approximately 85 percent of boys feel this way about a friend during their teen years?” she asked. One boy said, “For real?” “I said, ‘Yes, for real, boys want close friendships where they can share their secrets.’ 


We’re limiting who boys can be, says Joseph Derrick Nelson, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College who researches how gender stereotypes influence boys’ identity development. “We think they want to be left alone, but they very much want to rely on and support their friends.”

If we want to lower the odds that they’ll struggle with relationships or risky behavior down the road, we must show them how to achieve emotional intimacy. Here are nine ways parents can help boys defy stereotypes and form the close friendships they crave.


Help your son distinguish between feelings such as loneliness and disappointment. He can use that language to describe his friendships. “It’s nothing magical,” Nelson says. “Point out how a good friend treats him. Maybe they let him borrow their favorite video game, and that was their way of showing they trust him to care for it and return it,” he says. Give him the words to express that he enjoyed spending time with someone. “It’s okay to tell Billy, ‘Hey, man, we had so much fun when we hung out today,’” Nelson says.


Read the full article.

Joseph Derrick Nelson is an assistant professor of educational studies at Swarthmore and a senior research fellow with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. His research to date has explored how race and gender stereotypes influence the identity development of boys of color in elementary and middle school contexts. Nelson is also co-principal investigator of The Listening Project at New York University.

Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing