Parents can help prepare boys for all kinds of relationships by examining those in the sports world.
People are clear about two things. Men should “wear the pants in the relationship” and women understand relationships better than men do. If you buy into those stereotypes—and lots of folks do—then you’ve got a recipe for disaster: the person in charge of the relationship is the one who knows least about how it works.
It’s not really a surprise that girls and women tend to understand relationship dynamics better than boys and men. The magazines and TV shows marketed directly towards them—Seventeen, and Gilmore Girls, for example—are all about relationships; Maxim and Sportscenter don’t really address these kinds of issues.
Except that they do. Sure, there’s a lot of content that reinforces the stereotypes of men as uninterested in relationships and women as present only to serve men’s pleasure. Yet those media products also talk about other types of relationships: friendships, colleagues, mentors, and employer/employee connections. While those aren’t the same as a romantic relationship—and why does “relationship” automatically imply romance?—trust and loyalty are important regardless of what type of relationship we’re talking about.
Children in elementary school know you’re not supposed to tell someone else’s secret; this is the basis of trust. Adolescents certainly understand this. Teens’ definitions of trust also include things like following through on promises and other agreements.
We can ask guys about the limits of this kind of confidentiality. In later elementary school and much of middle school, it’s not unusual to be told a “secret” about someone’s crush. But it seems as though those secrets are intended to be shared, because that’s how couples get formed at this age (and in some offices). Does that mean it’s really a secret? And how do you know what’s a “real” secret and what’s a secret that’s supposed to be shared?
In sports, does a player trust the trainers and coaches to do right by him? Does he tell them just how severe the injury is, even though he wants to get back in the game and they may say he can’t play? Despite the efforts of the NFL and NHL to reduce concussions over the last few seasons, several players have admitted they continued to play despite the fact that they were experiencing concussion symptoms; they chose not to tell the trainers or coaches. I acknowledge that coaches and leagues give plenty of mixed messages regarding taking care of a player’s health, but when a guy chooses not to say what’s going on, that shows a lack of trust.
When talking about trust, it’s important to remember that adolescents often define privacy in terms of things kept private from parents; they’re quite aware that things shared with friends are likely to be shared with a group of friends and possibly their entire social world, not just one person.
Loyalty and Commitment
Loyalty, which includes “having somebody’s back,” is also an important component of friendship. Guys are certainly aware of whom they’ve helped out and “been there for,” and whether the support is reciprocal. They have some sense of which of their friends will support them no matter what, and whose support is more conditional. Although we don’t often ask boys to think in those terms, it’s a conversation worth having.
If you and your son both follow sports, you’ll certainly find plenty of opportunities to talk about loyalty and commitment. LeBron James’s departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 was an intriguing example. Was James disloyal for leaving the team after seven years? Did the team expect too much of him, especially considering the other players they brought in? You can think of that last question as asking if the team committed enough support to helping James.
There are a host of similar questions that get played out every season: how loyal should a team be to an aging superstar who is past his prime and at the end of his contract? How much should a team stick with a promising young player who is struggling in his second or third year? Does a team “owe it” to the regular starter to put him back in the lineup when he’s recovered from an injury, even though his replacement is doing very well? And what does the team “owe” to that replacement player?
Continuing the conversation
Learning about relationships isn’t a one-time thing. Every relationship is different and relationships change as we get older and as our relationships become longer-lasting. Don’t just talk about relationships with your son(s) once or twice, talk about them periodically. During those conversations, ask your son to think about how trust, or loyalty, or whatever, might look in a different type of relationship, including a romantic relationship. No matter what his future holds, he’s going to have lots of different relationships; teach him how relationships work and you’ll increase the odds he has many good friends, mentors, and dating relationships.
Image of boxer in corner with trainers courtesy of Shutterstock