Tuesday, July 20, 2010


You’re my best friend...

In a New York Times article last month, we heard about concerns from parents and educators about what happens when best friends turn into exclusive subgroups, prompting children to block other children from their inner circles.

Still, school officials admit they watch close friendships carefully for adverse effects. When two children discover a special bond between them, we honor that bond, provided that neither child overtly or covertly excludes or rejects others, said Jan Mooney, a psychologist at the Town School, a nursery through eighth grade private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. However, the bottom line is that if we find a best friend pairing to be destructive to either child, or to others in the classroom, we will not hesitate to separate children and to work with the children and their parents to ensure healthier relationships in the future.

I’m at a loss.

I understand the problem of bullying, an age-old malady that’s become all the worse as our standards have changed and as technology has created new ways to bully.

I understand the problem of in groups, another age-old malady that’s become all the worse as our standards have changed and as technology has created new ways to exclude.

But let’s be realistic. Humans have two primary characteristics that are at play here. One: we’re tribal by nature, which is one of the reasons that racism is so hard to eradicate. That makes us want to stay in small to moderate group sizes, to form bonds within those groups, and to make it relatively difficult for others to come in. We have country clubs, German-American clubs, Knights of Columbus, and church social groups. We have class reunions, where we attempt to maintain or revitalize bonds from twenty, thirty, and fifty years ago.

Two: we naturally form especially close bonds with just a few other people, sometimes one. Why are buddy films so popular? Because we can relate to the buddy, partner, sidekick, special-trusted-friend relationship at a very basic level. It’s not just that we want to have a relationship like that; it’s that we want a relationship like that deep inside, as part of what makes us human.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone is like that all the time. As I think back to my childhood, I know that there were times when I had a best friend, or perhaps two... and times when I didn’t. It isn’t a need that has to be filled all the time.

But it’s a need that humans drift to, some more strongly than others. I don’t think we serve children well when we try to get in the way of that. And they are getting in the way of that when they try to separate best friends because that group of friends is not including some other child.

Also, of course, we expect our children, as they move into adulthood, to develop one special relationship that will turn into marriage. We expect them to establish this relationship for life, and to remain faithful to it. Will it help them learn to form such bonds if we disallow the best friend connection?

It’s terrible for the excluded child, of course, if he or she can’t find a group to be a part of. Perhaps the kid is considered weird, fat, or ugly. Maybe the kid’s shy, and no one’s willing to make the effort. Or maybe it’s just the luck of the draw, and the other kids have just left this one out for reasons we can’t figure. Adults at school are right to try to help.

But separating true friends, with the idea that they’ll then be forced to include the outsider, is not the right answer. Apart from the intrusion on the child’s life and the heartbreak of having a best friend pulled away... apart from the uncertainty involved whenever you try to force people to like each other... there’s the risk of psychological consequences it may take many years to see.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

I see this as one more example of extraverts (in the Jungian/MBTI sense) running the school system. Introverts are generally forced to behave like extraverts at all levels - class participation as part of the grade is another, egregious, example. Some people (roughly 15-20%) just don't have lots of friends. Don't WANT lots of friends.

Yes, it's hard on the kids who have no friends and want them. But breaking up a pair of friends who are "excluding" all others is NOT the way to get those kids included.