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Why Best Friends Really Are Bad for Girls

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Best friends are bad for you.

So says an article published in the New York Times a couple of days ago. Titled "A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding," it describes a new trend among some educators and child psychologists who are actively discouraging children from having best friends. The concern is that forming exclusive one-on-one friendships in childhood encourages cliques and bullying. Some camps have even gone so far as to set up "friendship coaches" to help campers become friends with everyone else.

The reaction to this article has been both fast and furious. Last I checked there were some 387 comments on the post, most of them negative. "God, spare us the overanxious theorists and control freaks," wrote one commenter. Others noted the "Orwellian" nature of the anti-Best Friend movement, decrying the "pathological adult over-thinking" that lies behind it and denouncing it as yet another version of the "Nanny State." It is an idea "beyond stupidity," wrote someone else.

Well, call me a stupid, Orwellian, pathologically over-thinking adult (it's OK, I've been called worse), but I found myself nodding in agreement while I read this article. So let me go out on a limb and tell you why I think the New York Times story has it right: Best friends aren't great for kids. Especially for girls.

Before I do that let me say upfront that I have the most wonderful collection of friends on earth. Some have been with me from childhood. Others came along through college, work and the various neighborhoods I've lived in and schools my kids have gone to along the way. They've seen me through assorted family crises, grade school, grad school, breakups, marriage . . . you name it. And now -- courtesy of my own blog (not to mention the glorious women of WomanUp) -- I've got a whole slew of new e-BFFS (my term of art) as well.

So I'm not against friendship. Kids and adults need friends. Lots of them. Especially girls and women.

What I am against is Best Friends -- capital B, capital F.

And the reason is that dyadic relationships often entail power asymmetries. (Can you tell that I was once a political scientist?) But it's true. When there are just two people involved, they are forever trying to square off against one another to see who'll be dominant. (Think Cold War). Whereas multi-polar worlds tend to yield a more diffuse, symmetrical balance of power. (Think contemporary Europe.)

I've got two kids and I've seen both of them scarred by having a best friend at a young age. I remember one of my son's early "best friends" -- I'll call him Gregory -- who threatened to dump my son unless he gave Gregory his healthy fruit bars at lunch. (My son has multiple allergies and is quite limited in what he can eat, dessert-wise.) I saw how much my son looked up to Gregory and was willing to follow his every lead, even when Gregory took advantage of him (as with said fruit bars.) And I remember feeling relieved when Gregory finally moved on to a new school and I no longer needed to worry that my son would grow up to be the classic "enabler" -- marrying an abusive alcoholic whom he'd be powerless to counter. (Yes, folks, that's a joke, but the sentiment behind it is not.)

As my son got older, however, I saw that boys and girls really differ in the ways that they approach friendship. Now that my son is 9, he mostly travels in packs of five or six. On any given day, any one of these young lads might be labeled his "best friend." But he's not choosy. They move in a gaggle. And if he happens to have a spat with one of them one day, the next day things are fine.

Not so with girls. My daughter, 6, has an ongoing love-hate relationship with her current best friend. When things are good, they're great. When they aren't so great -- because the other little girl doesn't like my daughter's sweater or haircut -- she's devastated for days at a time. Sometimes weeks.

Maybe that's just my kids. But it's a pattern I've seen replicated in other families as well. In my own life, there's no question that the most possessive and jealous relationships I've ever been in have all been with females. I remember when I was a junior in high school and started dating my first serious boyfriend and my best friend at the time was furious. I thought it was because she also liked him. But when she and I finally had it out, it turned out that she wasn't actually jealous of me (for dating him) but jealous of him for taking me away. Ditto another childhood friend who was so threatened when I made other friendships that she sought to systematically alienate those other girls from me so that it would just be the two of us.

And that's because -- let's face it -- girls are bitchy. They're bitchy at 4. They're bitchy at 14 (see: "Mean Girls"). And Lord knows they're bitchy at 44. (Don't believe me? Just go ask Carly Fiorina what she really thinks of Barbara Boxer's hair.)

Which is probably why, as I got older, I started surrounding myself with groups of friends, rather than locking into one single person. I also started having a lot of close male friends (and not of the "When Harry Met Sally" variety.)

And so, like the educators featured in the Times article, I now encourage my daughter to have as many play dates as possible, boys and girls alike. I never tell her who to have as a friend. I just encourage her to be open-minded. For just as it's wise to diversify your portfolio in the stock market so that you don't become too dependent on any one stock, so too is it wise in the world of friends. I want to protect her from being over-exposed to one person.

Which brings me to so-called helicopter parenting. Many of the commenters on the Times article criticize the schools and camps and psychologists cited in the piece for overly intervening in kids' "natural" friendships. Maybe so. But the reason these adults feel compelled to do this is precisely because parents, in unduly involving themselves in their children's lives, have forced them to do so. The article cites a school administrator whom parents had shown a bullying text that one child sent to another and had to spend the entire next day sorting it out.

We may all want to wax poetic about the good old days when we ran around in droves playing kick-the-can and neither our parents nor our teachers knew (or gave a damn) whom we played with. But I've got news for you: those days are over (Abby Sunderland notwithstanding). So it's not really fair to blame schools for wanting to micro-manage children's friendships. They do it because they are asked to do it and they are the ones who have to cope with the fallout within the population they've been entrusted to manage: kids. So if we're going to blame anyone, let's blame the parents. (And yes, I will happily step forward.)

But first, let me get back to today's to-do list. Which entails . . . setting up some play dates for my daughter with new friends.

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Filed Under: Woman Up

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I agree that in large numbers, girls may tend more toward drama (like a girls sports team or all girls school), but they also don't tend to punch each other out over a baseball game. It can definitely be beneficial for children to have both male and female friends, but sometimes they're just not comfortable with that. I have several friends, both male and female, but no one knows me like my best friend. We have been best friends for ten years. She has always been there when I needed her (parents divorce/remarriages, boy problems, etc) and vice versa. THAT is what a best friend actually is. I think this author is confused. A boy who steals someone's fruit bars... not so much a best friend. A bully. It happens. Take a look at the news: it's a pretty common story these days. Teach your children how to pick good friends. I DO NOT mean pick their friends for them. They will learn from their mistakes. Teach them that they deserve a real friend who will actually be there for them, not just when it's convenient.

June 23 2010 at 11:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I struggled with social interactions all through grade school. Many years I was miserable: teased, made to feel different, lonely. Despite my experience I am a well-adjusted young woman in my late 20s who has really good friends. Lets not throw out the baby with the bath water. We need to teach our children civility, how to interact with others. Separating children, especially girls (because we assume it is female nature not to get along--an assumption I have a problem with by the way) is not the answer, we need to teach our children conflict resolution. We need to stop thinking of childhood as a stage of life protected from hurt. Children learn from negative experiences as well as positive ones. I wouldn't want my children to miss out on important character building experiences just because its painful. I rather help them learn how to deal with pain and disappointment. They're going to experience it in life, over and over, might as well learn how to deal with it sooner than later.

June 23 2010 at 9:18 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

As an eighteen year old recently graduated senior i would like to say that each and every one of you are wrong. Girls truly are evil, manipulating and hurtful. This is not a case by case scenario, it happens every single day. If you disagree please feel free to walk into any high school today. You will be quickly shown the error of your ways. And also the writer here is not saying do not have best friend"S" the idea is not to put everything you have into one person. This is because girls really are simply put...bitchy. Spoken from experience. The 2010 era of girls are completely different that than of the 1960's-1990's. And anyone who would like to challenge th idea that "all girls are bitchy" have likely never truly experienced the pain that modern girls inflict on each other. ALL girls. Not just some.

June 21 2010 at 12:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kfin1992's comment

Hi kfin1992- I may sound like a strange counterpoint to your point as I too have experience with girls hurting other girls- in high school I found myself ousted from my group of friends and very hurt from the experience as the girls tried to get other girls then to isolate me as well (and this went on for years) but can say that definitely not all girls will hurt each other. I think the most important thing to remember is that age plays a huge factor in these things. I'm currently 25- and over the years have formed a very different group of friends. The teenage age years are very strange because you're kind of forced into a situation where you have limited options of people to hang out with (at school) but once your options expand (be it college or just in the world at large) it's a lot easier to find that women are not what they are depicted to be. I think a lot of girls tend to sway more towards male friends with time because they think they are less catty or whatever but having both guy and girl friends I've found they both tend to have the same issues. In places where I've worked where it's been mostly all guys they will have the same problems- just in different ways. Instead of maybe watching 2 mean women talk about another woman behind her back I've seen 2 mean guys push another guy out of his job just because they didn't like him- and the same two guys later do the same to a woman. I think the guys were far more evil to people they didn't like in this scenario because they were messing with other peoples careers in addition to their feelings. I feel like by eliminating the negative people out of your life you'll find that neither sex makes a better friend. I do agree that you should not put one person as the focal point of your life as you made in your post. I think it's important to keep good supportive friends regardless of gender in your life. I would say I have about 50/50 female, male friends and all are good and supportive- and for the girls that were mean in high school it's hard to imagine but once they're out of that awkward teenage stage they may grow up to be nice women as well. I can even say I learned from my experience of being friends with a whole bunch of girls who maybe didn't treat me so nice because it still made me aware of things I could do better to be a better friend- or stuff I was doing with good intentions but came off wrong and learned how to better myself from. Bottomline I assure not all girls are bitchy or mean- but I do know it's hard to feel otherwise if you haven't met any yet to change your mind. They're out there- and if you're not finding them yet you will in time! ***I also should add that what got me through those years of attempted isolation was one girl who stayed by my side no matter what and was my best friend. We grew apart but without that best friend I don't know how I could have made it through the hard years!

June 23 2010 at 11:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

While I understand your points, I have to disagree. I think that best friends are a very good thing- though I don't think that kids should have best friends and then just "acquaintances," which is often the case. Many times a child/teen/young adult (primarily these age groups) have best friends, but- though they may get along perfectly fine with others, and often share a lot in common with them- they consider their other classmates/peers something less than actual "friends." I think we should encourage people to have best friends, but encourage people to involve MORE of their peers, rather than fully focusing on one or two people.
One of my main reasons for the pro-best friend ideology is this; best friends share a much stronger, and more intimate bond than other friends. For instance, there are things I tell my BEST friends that I would never be able to tell my other friends. Also, if something traumatic happens, or there is an embarrassing yet dangerous situation that someone is in, they would feel much more comfortable telling someone they feel incredibly close to rather than someone they just get along with and enjoy being around. Without best friends, people may not have anyone to go to when they truly need help- unless they feel like paying for a therapist or the like. Speaking of therapists, I've met many people who see a therapist regularly, about things that normally someone would just go to a best friend for advice about, or just to talk about. Not that I have anything against psychologists/therapists and the like- I'm actually attending school to become one- but I feel that many use therapists the way they would use a best friend, and it is unnecessary. While I would go to a therapist for something immensely traumatic, I do not feel that small things- such as life struggles, a spouse/lover leaving or hurting you, or parent/family problems- require someone who attended school to become a therapist; those skills aren't needed. What IS needed, however, is a friend who knows you well enough to be able to offer you genuinely good, heart-felt advice.

This part is more about the article- I think these opinions are based on certain people/personal experiences. Also, the girls portrayed in Mean Girls do not do justice to MOST girls out there. Not every female is a selfish, conniving, slightly evil person. Also, if a person is smart enough, they would not choose a best friend who abuses their friendship and takes advantage of them. (That was not an insult to the writer's child- young kids are purely inexperienced, therefore may not realize the type of relationship they have with another child) For instance, most people have a best friend who is there for them when they need him/her, and actually cares about them- along with being very alike and compatible.

To finish off my comment, I believe that best friends are a very important part of a person's life, not to mention their development. Best friends share a stronger bond than other friends, and can help each other get through difficulties. The thing that people need to be sure NOT to do, is to ONLY reach out to/hang out with their best friends. They need to have more friends, but can still have a best friend.

Anyway, just my opinion on the matter. :)

June 18 2010 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Childhood friendship teaches children, how to get along in socail settings with peers. Best Friends, (all children have them they come and go)...As boy friends, girl friends, later teach them how to build stronger relationships. They are kids. Everything they do is about learning. Stopping that process, learning, isn't the best course of action. Just my opinion.

June 18 2010 at 1:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

So, to sum up: Boys travel in packs with all being equal friends. Girls are bitchy. Hmm, I think things are a little more complex than that. Everyone needs friends is the conventional wisdom, if only to prevent them from becoming the dread loner. As a society we are moving from a reality where family is losing it's hold on societal norms and groups of friends are emerging to fill that void.

June 18 2010 at 12:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Why must we continue to perpetuate the "girls are bitchy" and "i cant be friends with other girls" thing? The more we recognize it, the faster it gets passed down to our little girls so they automatically feel the same way, thus continuing the destructive cycle. If we teach our girls to be comfortable with themselves and how to make their own happy in their lives they will be less reliant on "best friends". Girls are bitchy and undermining to each other when they have self esteem issues and jealousy issues. Lets work to erase (as much as we can) those issues and allow our kids to enjoy having friends and enjoy the things they get to do together.

June 18 2010 at 11:54 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

To Della Lloyd,

I'm not sure why your experience with best friends has involved a struggle for dominance. I have not had that issue. I find that I like to see my friends promoted in life, and they have the same desires for me. I don't agree with the premise of the original article or the argument you've made above. And I think, probably, the ability to have close personal relationships is a good thing. That intimacy is a good social skill. And that if men or women are denied the ability to be close to friends in childhood, it would be very hard to find it in adulthood.

June 18 2010 at 10:29 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tndrdrgon's comment

I'm glad I read your post, because I meant to mention that. I agree- I have not experienced this struggle for dominance. Typically, between me and my best friends, we feel very similar- not that one is a leader, and others follow. For instance, my group of friends treat each other as equals. There is not one person leading- we all have input on whats going on, and we all bring something different to the table. Each of us is similar, but we are all different at the same time. This creates a very good experience- we all get along great, and all expose each other to different experiences. In my opinion, it help has helped us develop over the past 7+ years. Also, I feel that it is because of these differences that we are all more accepting.

June 18 2010 at 2:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This is an absurd concept, as relationships are key for all people, regardless of sex. I've had my share of heartache with lost/broken friendships, but learned from them and moved on. Children learn about how to deal with different personalities by experiencing the good and the bad aspects of friendships. Besides, we all learn that not everyone will like us nor will we like everyone, so why discourage some pleasant best friend memories? Like people, our interests change as we grow, too, so making new friends is more the issue than the detriment of having close ones too long.

June 18 2010 at 10:01 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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