Many boys say they would prefer a male befriender according to early findings, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Yet, less than a quarter of UK volunteer child befrienders are men.
"The shortage means many boys in need of a strong male presence in their lives are missing out on the adult male companionship they would like," states researcher Dr Sue Milne of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) at the University of Edinburgh.
Many of the children referred to befriending services face difficulties at home or in school. Some have learning or behavioural problems; others have been affected by the death or imprisonment of a parent, or by parental substance/ alcohol abuse.
"Befrienders offer relationships to children without being goal orientated. They make a very valuable contribution to the lives of children living in difficult circumstances," says Dr Milne. "They provide friendship and support as well as the chance for the children to try new activities and enjoy themselves out of the house."
To discover whether the gender of their 'befriender' matters to children themselves, researchers talked in depth with boys and girls aged 6-15 about their hopes for, and experience of, befriending.
"Boys with a strong sense of a conventional male identity expressed a clear preference for a male befriender - someone with whom they could spend some 'guy time' and share interests and activities," Dr Milne points out. Speaking of their concerns with a female befriender, some boys said:
- "If I said I wanted to do a bit of woodwork or something, they'd say oh why would you want to do that, go and do something else or they just wouldn't join in as much as a man would."
- "I think with having my befriender we can do more of the go-karting, crashing into things, running around stuff we can go cycling, and he can help me and if he crashes I can help him."
- "It would make a difference, like, if a man takes you out somewhere, it would be like going to play basketball or going to a football tournament."
- "No offence to any of the girls that I hang around with but I just prefer to be with guys."
This lack of opportunity for girls to have a male befriender is unfortunate, says Dr Milne. "There's no reason why male befrienders shouldn't be matched with girls," argues Dr Milne. "Certainly the only girl in our study who was matched with a male befriender said she had gained a great deal, particularly in confidence, from the experience."
All children, Dr Milne suggests, would benefit from having greater contact with non-familial adults of different genders and generations. Given the predominantly female care provided to young children both at home and at primary school, children of both sexes could benefit from more contact with men. "How many opportunities are there today, particularly for young children from lone mother families, to experience men in their lives?" she asks.
"Clearly children should have this opportunity," Dr Milne continues, "and a male befriender can certainly fulfil this very important role. More than 75 per cent of children referred to befriending services come from lone mother households. If more male befrienders came forward it would provide welcome options not just for boys but also for girls."
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More information: The project's 'Me and My Befriender' website can be viewed at: www.crfr.ac.uk/befriending/index.html