Best Friends: Who Needs Them?

7 years ago

I hear a lot about best friends. You know, those people who stand out from the rest, who you talk to more than many other people, or who you at least know would answer if you were really in a jam. Your best friend is the person who holds your secrets, who in the best of times is there when the rest of the world isn't, whose heart you probably know at least a little better than most.

And who, yes, in the worst of times, has maybe sold you out and let you know that fundamentally, sometimes when you need it most to be, life isn't fair. And who in the process has taught you how to handle the particular heartbreak of a broken friendship, with the choice and the challenge to mend or to sever it. 

Girls hugging

There are some who would say now that children should not be encouraged to have these deeper personal relationships, that in fact adults -- educators and parents -- should intervene and push the power of the group experience over one-on-one. Some claim that close friendships can lead to cliques and exclusionary behavior, maybe bullying. According to the New York Times, some schools and camps employ administrative teams and "friendship coaches" to ensure the power of the collective

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 yet gotten to know.

I'm all about getting to know new people, but this just sounds wrong. 

I was an awkward child in some ways. School was difficult for me at times and if not the last kid picked, I was rarely among the first. There were a few people in my small elementary school who kept me from feeling so alone, and who, in the process, made my life better. I am still close to one of these women, and it's nice to know that we independently forged a connection at six years of age that lasted. We each have many other long-lasting and closer friendships with other people, but I am still among the first to see mobile uploads of her latest tattoo. We can still locate each other in space, put it that way. 

What happened happened. Other kids could have been forced to sit at my table. I could have been discouraged from hanging out with her. I believe -- based on what I know personally and of children -- that that would not have ended well. The best way to make me want something is to tell me I can't have it or do it, anyway. Have these people not heard about reverse psychology? 

Sometimes adults need to back off and let things roll. 

I don't have to give out broken-lettered hearts anymore to prove it, but I have a best friend now. In fact, I've had a few over the course of my life, and always a handful more of people I consider closest to me. I like a lot of people, but my friends are important to me and the truth is that I like them differently and, yes, better, than I like other people. No matter what you call her, you had better feel that way about people who call you out about questionable boyfriends and bad attitudes, who can teach you a good deal about love, loyalty and bridal shower hell.

Not that all of my friends are women -- not by a long shot, but that's another post. 

Many of these relationships have mellowed. Some of these people have hurt me, and I have hurt them. Some have disappeared entirely. And my best friend now, the person I consider closest to me? I could not have what I know is a strong and valuable relationship with her were it not for all of these other people before. I wouldn't have the quality group of friends I have now if I hadn't naturally figured out who and what works for me and doesn't. 

So no matter how painful (and yes, exclusionary) some of my social interactions have been over the years, I honestly believe that I had to learn how to navigate them on my own, with some support along the way from my parents, other trusted adults and peers, of course. I couldn't have learned how to bond with people who were right for me if I hadn't handled both happy and disappointing social situations. Because at some point you learn -- as you do in all kinds of relationships -- that it's not about being who the other person wants or needs you to be. It's not about being cool enough or smart enough or accepted in spite of who you are or because you're sitting at a table based on who someone else thought you should be talking to. It's about discovering, whether it's with a life partner  or a friend who you'd trust with your life, that they want you around and you them because of who you are. And that's something I believe happens naturally or not at all. 

The hierarchies of school and neighborhoods and dance class and sports teams have always existed in some form and always will, and I'm not saying the road is always easy. And while I do believe that kids should be encouraged out of their comfort zones and they certainly should not be allowed to act like jerks to other kids just because they don't think they're cool or popular, some of this stuff you can't and shouldn't force.

And who said groups -- while a necessary thing to get used to -- were always great anyway? Kids need refuges, too, and if that occurs in the form of a friend they relate to above all others in a way that does no harm, what is the problem with that? 

I just don't think there is one. Because as a woman pushing 40, if it were not for this person who appeared in my life as my best friend -- along with the several other friends who make it so much better -- I would be a mess. It took a lot of years to learn to find and to decide who these important people should be on my own terms. And I don't, when it comes down to it, really want to be made to sit with anyone else if they're around. 

I think that barring any major complications, children should be trusted to figure out who fits them, too. I say from experience and a for-now happy ending that it will serve them well. 

Lenore Skenazy at ParentDish says "Friendship Coaches? For Kids? For Real?" My thoughts exactly. 

Real Delia agrees with the NYT that best friends aren't great, especially for girls. 

One of Joanne Jacobs's commenters brings up the toll such constant group interaction could take on an introverted child, something I thought about the whole time I read the article. 

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr


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