Several days ago, one of our daughters, M., told me about an experience she’d had last year in seventh grade that I had known nothing about.
There was a new boy whom we’ll call C. in her grade who had a pretty rough home life. He was living with his grandparents and the whereabouts of his parents were unknown. He had a learning disability and was struggling in school. And he was very shy, socially-awkward, and had no friends.
My daughter is a tenderhearted girl and felt sorry for him when no one wanted to be his partner one day in class, so she offered to work with him. She had to work really hard to help him because school work was a great struggle for him. Her teacher noticed the help she was giving him and after that began regularly pairing her up with C.
Soon, at lunch time C. began to come and sit with her. M. is a social free-agent – her core group is the good girls, the ones who do their homework and are mostly nice to everyone and, while not the popular, hot girls, they are generally liked by everyone – but because she is an athlete, she also flits around other social groups. So she didn’t mind too much that this boy wanted to sit with her, at first.
Then he asked to have his locker switched so that he could be in the empty locker right next to hers, and then she said it got weird. He was so happy to have finally found a friend that he wanted to talk to her all the time, walk with her in the hallway, sit right next to her in class, and sit with her at lunch, and other kids began to notice and tease her about her new boyfriend.
Remember that she was in seventh grade when this happened, so her response, while not kind, is also not surprising. She responded to the teasing with, “Ew, no way! He’s weird, I don’t like him! I just feel sorry for him, that’s all.” She felt bad about what she was saying, but she also felt enormous social pressure being exerted on her and didn’t know how else to make it stop. Naturally, her words got back to C., who came to her deeply upset, wanting to know if she really didn’t like him, if she really thought he was weird, and if they weren’t really friends. And of course she said, “Oh, no, I think you’re a really nice person, honest I do.” Readers, she was only 12, so what else would you expect her to say? But predictably, C. then continued to believe that she liked him just as much as he liked her and to follow her around everywhere like a lovesick puppy.
On top of all this, C. still had no friends, including male friends. He often looked sad and sort of lost. M. was getting fed up with his attention, but she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and she truly felt sorry for him, so she didn’t quite know what to do. I thought the solution she ultimately hit upon was really quite clever. This is what she did:
She is an honor student and is friends with all the super-smart boys. She went to one of the boys and told him what was going on and asked him, “Will you please volunteer to be C.’s partner in class? He needs a partner and he needs help with his work, but he’s driving me crazy because he thinks I’m his girlfriend, and I’m not!” The boy good-naturedly agreed to be C.’s partner.
From then on, the smart boys, out of kindness to M., went out of their way to work with C. However, C. still had no real friends and continued to pursue M. relentlessly. Eventually M. talked to her smart-boy friends about that, who said they’d make sure C. got the message. And they did so, in a predictably harsh adolescent manner, by saying, “Dude, you’re acting like a creep. She doesn’t like you that way. You make her feel weird. Leave her alone.” Ouch. But M. said that he stopped pursuing her so intensely.
And lo and behold, the smart boys got used to his presence in their group, even though he really wasn’t one of them, and soon they were allowing him to sit with them at lunch, walk with them in the halls, and work in their groups. So M. basically ended up finding C. his own social group. I was quite pleased with how she had handled the situation.
And lest anyone accuse the boys of White Knighting for her, let us remember that she didn’t want anything for herself from them – were she not a kind girl, she could easily have driven C. off with that special kind of cruelty that all females are capable of. She wanted them to help C. and instinctively knew that boys – not girls – should help other boys learn the social ropes.
But one thing that I told M. at the conclusion of her story was this:
A girl cannot be a friend to a friendless boy.
That sounds harsh, but I think a girl who tries to befriend a socially-rejected boy – or a woman who befriends a man in whom she isn’t romantically-interested – out of sympathy is actually setting him up for an even crueler fate. One of two things will happen:
1. He will latch on to her as a friend. This is not healthy for a young man. He cannot learn normal masculinity, which he will need to succeed in life, from a girl. The way that boys treat one another socially may look cruel, it may even be cruel, but it communicates important information to the boy. Girls will try to sugar-coat reality, at least to a guy’s face, but other boys are much less likely to do so. Though I don’t think they do it on purpose, girls are the ultimate dispenser of blue pills to boys and don’t make good friends for them.
2. He will get the idea that there is a romantic interest building. That is to be expected because the only normal kind of dyadic relationship between a male and female after adolescence hits should be a romantic one. I don’t mean that a young man and woman can’t be friendly with one another, but it can’t be exclusive; it must be a group friendship.
M. wanted to know how a girl could be kind to such a boy – or really any boy, friendless or not – without giving the mistaken impression that she is romantically interested, and I thought about that for a long time. And the truth is, I’m not entirely sure she can. Any kindness she shows him is likely to be misinterpreted. I don’t particularly like that answer. The tenderhearted woman in me wants to encourage my daughters to be kind to all who have no one to show them kindness, but if that leads to a situation where she then has to reject him after he forms an emotional attachment to her, it almost seems worse than just to reject him right from the get-go.
One thing I know is true: there are more and more boys like C. coming down the pipe due to the rise in single motherhood. Being raised by a single mother without a father’s guidance is just so incredibly bad for boys and leaves them broken in so many ways. Some boys can overcome this terrible disadvantage, but many cannot, and as a result they have no idea how to interact with boys or girls.
So readers, I would be interested in what you would counsel young women and teenage girls to do when faced with one of these types of young men – or any young man, really. How can she show him kindness without leading him on and setting him up for heartbreak?