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The Hidden Benefits of Girl-Boy Friendships and How to Foster Them Between Children

How parents can encourage mixed-gender friendships and help kids question gender stereotypes.

"Girl-boy friendships matter. They give kids a chance to explore themselves outside of constrictive gender scripts, and, ideally, question stereotypes," observes writer Elisa Strauss on CNN. "Girl-boy friendships can help undo some of these socialized gender constraints. When parents and teachers approve of these relationships, they are sending their children the message that it's not only okay to play with the another gender, but it is also okay to play like them." 

Contrary to what many kids — and adults — think, the way girls and boys play is more similar than different. "The differences [discovered by gender researchers] are generalizations. But on an individual basis, there is a tremendous amount of overlap," says psychologist David Walsh, the author of Why Do They Act That Way?  Moreover, he adds, "when boys and girls do play together, many of those differences start to disappear." However, due to gender stereotypes in our society, kids are often encouraged — from direct verbal commands to more subtle suggestions such as through the types of toys they are given or the style of their clothing — to play in gender-specific ways. For example, if a girl loves both dolls and rough-and-tumble play, people around her — including her peers — will reward her for playing with the dolls and discourage her from roughhousing.

Even parents who try to avoid gender stereotypes in their own households are often surprised how quickly young children can internalize them after being exposed to them through peer interactions and media. Challenging such gender stereotypes is a major benefit of mixed-gender play, especially since it gives kids "permission" to try on behaviors and traits that are often associated with the other gender. As Strauss observes, "A girl playing with a boy might feel free to be competitive, a trait stereotypically associated with boys. A boy playing with a girl might feel free to be talkative and emotional, traits normally associated with girls."

A common challenge to fostering girl-boy friendships is that they are frequently sexualized; kids who play in mixed-gender pairs will often hear others talk about their "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," which can lead some children to avoid such friendships. However, as Joanna Schroeder points out in our article Never Tell Her: "He's Mean Because He Likes You":  "Kids need the opportunity in childhood to have friendships with boys or girls, regardless of their gender, without grownups introducing the adult notions of romance or attraction. Strong friendships with kids of all genders are important for kids, and parents shouldn’t make their kids feel funny about them." Family life expert Lynne Griffin in Psychology Today further observes: "Commenting on how cute your child looks with her boy friend or asking questions about who is 'seeing' whom gives your child mixed messages about what others expect from boy/girl friendships at this age."

Of course, one of the biggest benefits of mixed-gender friendships is that girls and boys also have a lot to teach one another. For example, Rachel Simmons, an expert on girls' development and author of Enough As She Is, points out that boys and girls often deal with disagreements in different ways: boys are more likely to focus on the rules, while girls are often interested in talking through a conflict. "You want girls and boys to be exposed to different ways of conflict resolution, and to take them seriously from a young age," Simmons says. "I want my daughter to be comfortable with both, and have the facility to move freely between the two. This will help her socially and professionally [in the future.]"

So how can parents help — especially since it's often kids who draw a firm line between the girls and the boys on the playground? When one of Strauss' son's friends told him that "Boys can't be friends with girls, and boys can't jump rope," she realized that "A life without jump roping would be fine. A life without girl-friends would not." Still, parents shouldn't minimize kids' feelings when a peer or same-gender friend tells them girls and boys don't play together. "Parents can help their children challenge gender norms," Strauss argues, "but they should do it in a way that is sensitive to the very real, sometimes scary, role these norms play in a child's life."

"Moms and dads can help children resist the boys-are-this-way and girls-are-that-way stereotypes by offering their children a wide variety of play options — toys and friends," observes Strauss. Of course, adults are often unaware of their own internalization of gender bias and the often unintentional ways that they may treat their own children differently based on gender. Studies have found that parents' own gender stereotypes strongly influence their perceptions of children's preferences and abilities, such as one study which found mothers of 11-month-old infants underestimated the motor skills of girls, while overestimating the abilities of boys, even though girls and boys showed identical performance levels at this age. Ultimately, raising children that are less constrained by gender stereotypes, and more open to girl-boy friendships, requires parents to explore their own, conscious and unconscious, gender bias.

Another challenge is that children's exposure to gender stereotypes goes far deeper than those they encounter at home. As Strauss notes, "Childhood friendships are colored by Netflix algorithms, schoolyard chatter, gender-specific goody bags, and the million other messages children receive informing them that being a different gender from someone means you have absolutely nothing in common with them." When these gendered messages pop up, parents should draw kids' attention to them and engage them on the topic: "I think it's strange that the clerk asked if you wanted the 'girl toy' or the 'boy toy' instead of asking if you'd like a princess or a superhero. What do you think about that?" These stereotypes also crop up in children's books and media, which is why sharing diverse, empowering books, which mirror the variety of personalities kids will encounter in the real world, is so important. Sharing stories about girls and women in science or princesses that break the damsel in distress mold creates a broader picture of what girls and boys do.

Reading books about mixed-gender friendships, like the ones in our blog post No Romance Required: 30 Books About Girl-Boy Friendships, can also show children that the quality of a friendship is more important than the gender of the friend — a message that parents should reinforce by talking about what kids enjoy about their own friendships. By saying "Jason sounds like he loves dinosaurs too!" or "Carrie said she likes to swim; should we invite her to join us at the pool?" you're showing that you pay attention to your child's interests and support relationships that foster them, no matter who the other person is. Similarly, when planning activities for a mixed-gender group, don't rule something out based on a preconception; your daughter's superhero-crazy male friend might love to see Captain Marvel with her.

With the constant gendered messaging directed at kids, sometimes it feels like parents' efforts can't possibly make a difference, but Strauss says that's not true: "When we encourage girl-boy friendships, we're also letting our kids know that we're not buying any of this, and they don't have to either." When we foster mixed-gender relationships, we show kids that we see the person first, not their gender. And, teaching them not to box people in with expectations based on gender is a valuable lesson throughout their lives: "Overall, the ability to see half of humanity in all their complexity is a major life asset," Strauss asserts, "professionally and personally."

Books About Girl-Boy Friendships

Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy

Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy

Illustrated by: David Soman
Recommended Age: 3 - 6

Lulu and Sam are best friends, but that doesn’t mean deciding what to play is easy. Sam suggests Diggers; Lulu counters with Monkeys. Sam wants to play under the castle; Lulu wants to climb to the top. But once Sam creates a new alter ego, Bumblebee Boy, inspired by Lulu's character Ladybug Girl, they finally find something they can both agree to play! This charming story celebrating a girl-boy pair is also terrific for showing the give and take that comes with a great friendship.

Wolfie and Fly

Wolfie and Fly

Written by: Cary Fagan
Illustrated by: Zoe Si
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

Curmudgeonly Renata Wolfman (AKA Wolfie) prefers to spend time alone: after all, friends just take up time she could use for facts and reading! But when she meets Livingston Flott (Fly), the eccentric boy next door, she soon finds herself with a companion in her cardboard box submarine. Wolfie is relieved when she has to go on a solo mission to find a key part for their game, but to her surprise, she finds that the time alone isn't quite as appealing as it was before. Maybe it's not so bad having Fly around... This early chapter book celebrates an unexpected friendship and the pleasure to be found when you are open to new experiences.

11 Birthdays

11 Birthdays

Written by: Wendy Mass
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Amanda is excited for her eleventh birthday — until everything goes wrong, including a fight with her best friend, Leo. She's glad when the day is over... but wakes up to discover that she's starting it all over again. The only other person aware of the time loop is Leo, and soon the pair have patched their friendship and start exploring the possibilities of unlimited do-overs. It turns out that seemingly small decisions have big and often unforeseen consequences — but can they find the one that gets them out of the loop and back to real life? Kids will love seeing Amanda and Leo rebuild their friendship and discover that what they do really does make a difference.

Book Scavenger

Book Scavenger

Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Emily's literary idol, Garrison Griswold, lives in San Francisco — something that makes her move to the city a lot more exciting! He's the creator of Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden in cities around the country. But when she arrives, Emily learns that Griswold has been attacked and no one knows anything about the epic new game he was just about to launch. When Emily and her friend James discover a strange book, they find themselves rushing from clue to clue, trying to find the secret — before whoever attacked Griswold comes after them too. This fun adventure, sprinkled with mysteries and ciphers, is sure to appeal to mystery fans. Emily and James' adventures continue in The Unbreakable Code and The Alcatraz Escape.

Ronia, the Robber's Daughter

Ronia, the Robber's Daughter

Written by: Astrid Lindgren
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Ronia is the celebrated daughter of Matt, leader of a ferocious band of robbers, but she’s happiest alone, exploring the deep forest. There, she meets Birk, the son of Matt’s greatest rival, Borka, and the two become unexpected friends. But when new hostilities break out between two bands, Ronia is faced with conflicting loyalties when her father wants to use Birk as a hostage to force his rival’s surrender. Can Ronia and Birk find a way to reconcile the two robber barons, or will they have to choose between friendship and family? This book by Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking, is full of adventure and suspense, as well as insightful explorations about loyalty, gender, and standing up for what you believe in.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Written by: Dusti Bowling
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Aven has long since gotten tired of questions about what "happened" to her arms, so she creates crazy stories instead of repeating over and over that she was born without them. When her family moves to Arizona to run a theme park called Stagecoach Pass, she steels herself for even more questions. Then she meets Connor, who also feels isolated by disability (in his case, Tourette's Syndrome.) And when the newfound friends discover a mystery at Stagecoach Pass, the real adventure can begin! This quirky adventure starring a delightfully funny main character is a reminder who doesn't let "lack of armage" hold her back also celebrates how a good friendship can liberate you to be yourself.

Three Times Lucky

Three Times Lucky

Written by: Sheila Turnage
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Miss Moses LoBeau is used to everything being everyone's business in her hometown of Tupelo Landing, NC — but the one thing nobody knows is where she came from: she washed up after a hurricane as a baby. Colonel, the cafe owner, and Miss Lana, the cafe hostess, have provided her a home, while her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, joins her on her adventures — and she would fight for any one of them. So when a murder/robbery happens in their little town, and a lawman comes around asking questions, Mo and Dale step up to solve the mystery. Humor, grit, and a close girl-boy friendship will make this book a hit.

Gender Neutral Parenting

Raising Kids With The Freedom To Be Themselves

Gender Neutral Parenting

Raising Kids With The Freedom To Be Themselves

Written by: Paige Lucas-Stannard

Contrary to the myths that you'll find in media and online, gender neutral parenting isn't about pretending there's no such thing as girls and boys; instead, it's about removing the expectations of what gender means. In this helpful guide, Paige Lucas-Stannard helps parents recognize the gender stereotypes that kids are bombarded with every day, and provides ways to create an environment where kids are not restricted by what girls and boys "do." Full of interesting conversations about gender and helpful counters to those who feel that not enforcing stereotypes will somehow damage kids, this book is a must-have title for parents who want to give their kids freedom to explore a world without gendered restrictions.

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Written by: Cordelia Fine

When topics like representation in STEM or fostering girl-boy friendships come up, some people argue that, maybe, male and female humans are just... different. Even some research studies seem to show that women are "unsuited" to math or that girls and boys "naturally" play differently. But as Cordelia Fine draws out in this important book, these answers most often play into the status quo, and neglect the role that socialization has in everything from who kids play with to what careers they choose. In Fine's insightful but good-natured exploration of gender stereotypes, misconceptions, and assumptions, parents will get a new perspective on child rearing, gender, and how we can build a more equal world.

Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes

Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes

Written by: Christia Spears Brown

From the moment parents know a baby’s sex, they may unconsciously treat boys and girls differently — and these biases can have long-term effects. Fortunately, it is possible to tackle both overt and subtle differences in the way we parent kids, removing artificial gender-based limits and giving them the opportunity to define their own futures. In this accessible and practical guide for parents of infants to middle schoolers, Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist, highlights what research says about how gender affects parenting — and how to combat accidental or deliberate gender bias, so that parents can instead help kids grow up to be their own, authentic selves.

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