Childhood is tough. We all have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as kids, whether it was a years of ongoing bullying and hassle from other kids or whether it was a string of sleights that grew over time into A Big Deal. I’ve seen all three of my children have to wrestle with one of the great challenges of adolescence time and again: exclusion.
This doesn’t go away as an adult, of course, and even in my more <cough> advanced years, I can still feel the hurt of hearing after the fact that all my friends went somewhere or did something and I wasn’t invited. Perhaps I wouldn’t have gone, but you know the feeling, you always want to have the option of opting out, not have someone do that for you. I mean, what if they secretly don’t like me and they spent the whole time talking about me?
Okay, as an adult it’s not quite that bad, and I do operate on the assumption that people can speak their mind and have free will in the decisions they make, so if my friends didn’t actually like me, well, they’d stop being friends with me. Makes things easy.
But what if pairing up with best friends means that in a small social circle there’s inevitably a child or two that are left without any friends at all? That’s the fear that psychologists are bringing to schools now, and while most kids (94% according to one study) still have a “best” friend, it’s possible that’s a bad thing. From a piece in the New York Times:
“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” said Jay Jacobs, [Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y.] camp director. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”
The camp apparently now has “friendship coaches” to help encourage children to have a large circle of friends.
On the flip side, I really believe that friendships are a tradeoff between depth and breadth. As another psychologist says in the same NYT article, “do we want to encourage kids to have all sorts of superficial relationships? Is that how we really want to rear our children?”
In a related BBC News article, relationship expert Judi James expands on the idea: “It’s probably a bit of fear and a survival instinct. It makes them feel more secure, it’s easier to face the world when there are two of you and it validates your behaviour, and who you are,” she says.
All three of my children have had – and still have – best friends. For the older two, it’s the person they’re in a relationship with, though they each also have best pals of the same gender too. For my youngest, she definitely has a bestie, another girl with whom they are both quite comfortable in the relationship. She also has other friends, boys and girls, and is always inviting additional children over for activities or sleepovers, not just her BFF.
I see this as all quite healthy and indeed would hope that anyone in a long-term relationship, whether marriage or otherwise, would have a close, emotionally and psychologically intimate relationship with their partner. That being the case, how is it not a great education on the journey of life for children to learn how to have intimate relationships too?
What’s your stance, parents: Pro best friends, or pro big social circles for your children?
I’m for kids having a wide group of acquaintance friends, and a small circle of “Best friends” Those are the kids you invite to your sleepover birthday party, or call up for an impromptu playdate. In my kids case, that number is between 5-8 depending on the day. It can still backfire if you fall out of step with the small circle, or if you start to do stuff that nobody else does. (My son is a speedskater, and he has a small cadre of friends from that area of his life, but nobody in the sleepover category.)
Life is about tradeoffs, and learning that early is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t devastate.