There was an article in NYT (you’ll need to register to read it) a few weeks ago about how schools and other groups catering to kids are starting to discourage best friend relationship. Apparently, it’s all part of a movement to discourage cliques, bullying and other exclusive behavior. After reading this article, I was furious. It talks of camps forcing friends to sit at opposite ends of the lunch table and schools trying to force kids to interact in groups, rather than one-on-one. More than furious, I was horrified. As an introvert, I am significantly more comfortable in small groups or with just one other person. The idea that I should only connect with groups of people is like a form of slow torture. I found it disturbing to know that there were educators who truly believed that this would be a solution to bullying. Like there is some one-size-fits-all answer to anything that occurs in childhood.
When Bug started at his current preschool, he was still mourning the loss of his “Very Best Friend” from his last school which was forced to close due to a cut in funding. I was no longer quite as worried about his ability to make friends in the classroom, as I had seen him interacting comfortably with a variety of kids in his previous class. Still, losing a best friend is hard, especially for kids like Bug who are ultra sensitive. It didn’t take long, however, for me to start hearing a new name pop up: “Best Friend A.” [I should note that for quite some time, Bug literally called him “my Best Friend A” rather than just “A.”] It came up so often that I started to become concerned. I didn’t want my child to be clique-y or unkind to other kids.
When new children joined the class, I encourage Bug to make sure to say, “Hi,” and make the new friend feel welcome. I suggested that he invite other children to play with him and A. My son just smiled at me and said, “Ok, Mom,” in a tone that left me unconvinced. But when LadyBug joined the class, I asked Bug who LadyBug would play with. Did he think she’d have a best friend? And he told me in that patient, don’t-you-know-anything voice, “LadyBug will play with A and I. He will be her best friend, too.”
Now that we are further along in the year, I have had more time to see the kids in their class and with their friends. I see how Bug and A gravitate toward each other, but with plenty of room for other kids to join in. They aren’t possessive or clingy. There is a happy confidence about their friendship that seems far beyond what a 3 or 4 year old should understand. They enjoy being together, but are just as comfortable being apart.
And that’s what I wish I could show the teachers and camp counselors in the NYT article. Best friends don’t need to turn into exclusive “BFF” dramas. Rather than discouraging our kids from making close relationships, why wouldn’t we teach them how to maintain healthy ones? I know my son is still young and I know my daughter is far more likely (given her personality, not her gender) to have trouble sharing a best friend, but will our kids learn these skills if they we don’t give them the chance? After all, marriages aren’t group affairs (at least not legally). One-on-one relationships are extremely important.
Recently we received an invitation to Bug’s best friend’s birthday party. We were on the fence about attending, since it meant missing a family event that we had already said we’d attend. In the end, Big Guy and I both agreed that this relationship was important enough to nurture, and that we also wanted a chance to get to know A’s family. For the first few minutes, Bug and A (both naturally shy in situations like that) kind of drifted around, not really acknowledging one another. But it wasn’t long before the two boys (with LadyBug occasionally in tow) were racing around, sitting side-by-side chatting, and just having fun together. I was impressed, actually, by what an easy comfort the boys shared. They played with the other kids at the party as well, but clearly just felt most comfortable hanging out together.
My son does best one-on-one. He is overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of group activities and isn’t always sure how to contribute. I can’t imagine how lost he would be in a setting where he was no longer allowed to spend time with the child (or children) with whom he felt most comfortable. And I can’t imagine a teacher who respects the differences in children ever forcing a child to sever ties with a healthy friendship. I hope, for the sake of all of our children, that we start to focus more on prevention through education, rather than deprivation.