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.
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.
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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