Weirdest story of the week: The New York Times today ran a piece on some schools and some school officials discouraging students from having a "best" friend. Being friends with everyone is supposed to, well, put an end to bullying.
I was bulled in middle school and I have written a seminal article on school bullying for Brain, Child magazine a few years ago (well before the topic became so hot) and I say: Balderdash. Bullying is a problem; it can even be a tragedy. But the fact that a couple of kids bond as best friends is not the cause of bullying: stopping best friendships is not going to be the "cure."
I have always counted myself fortunate to have a best friend as well as a couple of other women in my life with whom I am extremely close. I met my oldest best friend, Patti, when I was eight years old. Now, 46 years later, separated by hundreds of miles, we can still pick up the phone and start a conversation right in the middle. She knows my past and I know hers: all the dirty bits, the secrets, the moments we might not want to remember. She came to my father's funeral a few months ago and I know that whatever I asked, whenever I asked it, she would be there. She knows the same of me.
She's been there for me through a whole host of life changes. And those life changes began soon after we met in third grade. Had anyone discouraged me from clinging to her, or her to me, there would indeed have been hell to pay. And to what end? Is there any kind of scientific evidence that proves that being friends with an entire group of people without having one special person on whom one can absolutely rely is preferable? I wonder, actually, why on earth anyone would study this sort of thing in the first place. Bullying is about power. Power and insecurity. It's something I found is often "taught" or handed down from generation to generation. Stopping kids from having one great friend whom they can trust to have their back is not going to prevent bullying. If anything, when a child doesn't have someone he or she can trust -someone outside the family--bullying can seem even more onerous and scary than it already is. I never told my parents I was bullied. But Patti knew. And she defended me.
There is some common sense in the Times article. To wit:
"Many psychologists believe that close childhood friendships not only increase a child's self-esteem and confidence, but also help children develop the skills for healthy adult relationships -- everything from empathy, the ability to listen and console, to the process of arguing and making up. If children's friendships are choreographed and sanitized by adults, the argument goes, how is a child to prepare emotionally for both the affection and rejection likely to come later in life?"
But those bits of common sense are surrounded by the kind of weird socio-speak of so-called "experts" like Jan Mooney, a psychologist for a private school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She seems to worry that best friend pairings might be "destructive," and if she finds they are, she and school officials will separate the children and work with the parents to develop "healthier relationships" for the kids in the future.
Stop the micro-managing. How do we expect children to learn anything about the world?
And those sorts of stereotypes that Mooney and others perpetuate make my teeth ache. To assume that best friendships are destructive, rather than helpful and hopeful, seems to be buying into the worst of human nature. But it's no wonder: most of that worst of human nature is found on television today where "best" friends stab each other in the back, steal each other's mates, compete for jobs, sex, and adoration, or just plain act out and misbehave--all while claiming the people with whom, and at whom, they are misbehaving, are their BFFs. Desperate Housewives ring a bell?
The truth is that, left to their own devices, kids can pretty well choose their own best friends. And those relationships will last as long as they last: a few weeks, a few months, forever. But orchestrating a child's friendships, encouraging him or her to "like" everyone or find solace in numerous superficial relationship on which one cannot count for anything tangible seems a pretty strange way to curb childhood bullying. So much better to provide role models that counter bullying, in real life and on television, than undermine friendships.
Luckily, in the article, there seems to be one voice of reason, in psychologist/writer Mark Thompson, who says:
"No one can teach you what a great friend is, what a fair-weather friend is, what a treacherous and betraying friend is except to have a great friend, a fair-weather friend or a treacherous and betraying friend.
"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."
In my adult life, I buried a best friend after a ten-year fight with cancer. I wasn't sure I could ever fill the gap she left, but I have and then some: with my friend, Katherine, who also, unfortunately, lives several hundred miles away, and my friend, Rachel, who lives just down the road. But Patti started it all. Had I never found her, had I never trusted her, had I never had her as a best friend, I would never have had a template for how very valuable and necessary a best friend is.
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