Should Kids Have Best Friends?

The counselor at my child’s school recently hosted a lunch for all the girls in the 3rd grade.  She used the opportunity to talk to the kids about their social lives.  Specifically, she warned them of the pitfalls of forming cliques and encouraged them to avoid pairing off into groups.

Her attitude toward exclusive friendships is one that is being echoed around the country.  Worried about the bullying and the social ostracizing that can sometimes result when kids pair off, teachers and other professionals who work with children are trying to discourage relationships that exclude others.

Encouraging kids to be inclusive is a good idea.  But don’t all kids need a BFF with whom to share their innermost secrets, fears and feelings?  Christine Laycob, a counselor at a school in St. Louis, thinks not.

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that.  We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.”

But as much as schools would rather not deal with the fallout of exclusive friendships,  most kids want that connection with one special friend.  In fact, a Harris Interactive poll of nearly 3,000 8- to 24-year-olds revealed that 94% of respondents report having at least one close friend.

And many psychologists believe that is just as it should be.  Close childhood friendships lay the foundation for healthy adult relationships and teach kids how to fight, make up and empathize with one other.  On the flip side, they also teach kids how to deal with rejection.

Michael Thompson, a psychologist and author of the book “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children,” questions the motivation of educators who discourage kids from forming such relationships.

When a teacher is trying to tone down a best-friend culture, I would like to know why.  Is it causing misery for the class? Or is there one girl who does have friends but just can’t bear the thought that she doesn’t have as good a best friend as another? That to me is normal social pain. If you’re mucking around too much in the lives of kids who are just experiencing normal social pain, you shouldn’t be.”

As much as it pains me to see my own child in tears after being snubbed by a group of classmates, I agree with Thompson.  Adults spend a lot of time and energy trying to make life perfect for kids.  This, I fear, robs them of the admittedly painful but character building experiences that will make them stronger and help them survive in the adult world where there are no relationship referees.

As a parent, it is often hard to resist the urge to get involved when my child feels sad, lonely or left out.  But unless there is bullying or emotional abuse going on, I do resist.  Instead of trying to manipulate and orchestrate her relationships, I counsel her on the importance of being kind to everyone, standing up for herself when she’s been wronged and, most importantly, recognizing that her sense of self-worth must come from within.

Image: wickenden/Flickr

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