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Last week an article appeared in the New York Times questioning whether or not it was in a child’s best interest to allow them to have a best friend. Hilary Stout, the author of the article, spoke with various adults working with children in an administrative capacity who feel that allowing a child to foster a close friendship could potentially lead to the formation of cliques and create a culture of bullying. These administrators contend that the exclusive nature of a best friendship is detrimental to the social well-being of all children involved.
Stout reports that one New York summer camp takes active measures to prevent close friendships from forming. “If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t gotten to know.”
Along with presenting the camp’s negative perspective on close friendships, Stout quotes a director of counseling from a St. Louis school, who also takes active measures to prevent such friendships. “I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults – teachers and counselors – we try to encourage them not to do that. We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.”
Reading the article, I found myself getting a little angry that adults in authority would manipulate a child’s natural bonds of friendship. As a parent, I appreciate their concern and desire to prevent a culture of bullying. However, I think their perspective is simply wrong.
No one would argue with promoting kindness and respect for all, but by making it impossible for kids to naturally form close friendships, I think administrators are actually making the situation worse. Psychologist and professor, Dr. Irene Levine points out on her Psychology Today blog that children, like adults have different friendship styles and preferences. Some children are naturally more social, while others are simply more comfortable spending time alone or with a close friend. Also according to Levine, “When teachers (or parents) hover too closely or meddle at the first sign of a tiff between kids, children are denied the opportunity to learn friendship lessons they will need as adults.”
I’ve written here briefly about my own experiences with my childhood best friend, Jeannie. Our friendship taught me invaluable lessons growing up. Jeannie lived down the street and we were nearly inseparable from kindergarten through high school. Our friendship continued in college and although we now live in separate states, when we do get together it’s as if no time’s passed. Husbands and children have been added to the mix, but our friendship still remains. We’ve both expressed how grateful we are for our longstanding friendship that weathered the storms of growing up. Loyalty, honesty, encouragement, selflessness, perseverance and grace are some of the life lessons I learned as our friendship spanned the years.
Even though we were “best friends,” we didn’t exclude people from being with us; rather our friendship enabled us to share with others. Reflecting on those “growing years,” any cliques I remember seemed to exist with those who desired to fit into a group, changing themselves into whatever was acceptable according to current “group think” mentality. Having a “best friend” was a strong support to simply be me, and not to struggle with being a chameleon and only acceptable when put into a mold. I’m bothered that adults would prevent kids from having such valuable, essential developmental experiences. I’m not sure I’d be the same person had Jeannie not been a part of my life. Dr. Levine closed her piece with, “It’s a mistake to make the leap into thinking that close friendships lead to bullying. In fact, when children are bullied or excluded, it is their true friends who “have their backs” and can buffer them from that trauma.”
In the Times article, psychology professor Brett Laursen questions the wisdom of encouraging kids to have “…all sorts of superficial relationships.” “We want children to get good at leading close relationships, not superficial ones.” I wholeheartedly agree with Levine and Laursen. Relationship skills are honed in the wonder years and it’s those skills we carry with us into adulthood; into our marriages, friendships, and workplaces. As a mother of two, I know it’s natural and necessary to help kids by providing needed wisdom and discernment. But taking steps to prevent any close friendships, I believe, robs our kids of the skills they’ll inevitably need later in life. Sometimes it’s better to just get out of the way.
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