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Old 06-19-2010, 07:05 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Best Friends: Just as bad as bullying?

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View: A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding
Source: Nytimes
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A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding
By HILARY STOUT

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times
PLAYGROUP Margaret Guest, center, in striped shirt, often has groups of friends at her home in Dunwoody, Ga

FROM the time they met in kindergarten until they were 15, Robin Shreeves and her friend Penny were inseparable. They rode bikes, played kickball in the street, swam all summer long and listened to Andy Gibb, the Bay City Rollers and Shaun Cassidy on the stereo. When they were little, they liked Barbies; when they were bigger, they hung out at the roller rink on Friday nights. They told each other secrets like which boys they thought were cute, as best friends always do.

Today, Ms. Shreeves, of suburban Philadelphia, is the mother of two boys. Her 10-year-old has a best friend. In fact, he is the son of Ms. Shreeves’s own friend, Penny. But Ms. Shreeves’s younger son, 8, does not. His favorite playmate is a boy who was in his preschool class, but Ms. Shreeves says that the two don’t get together very often because scheduling play dates can be complicated; they usually have to be planned a week or more in advance. “He’ll say, ‘I wish I had someone I can always call,’ ” Ms. Shreeves said.

One might be tempted to feel some sympathy for the younger son. After all, from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, the childhood “best friend” has long been romanticized in literature and pop culture — not to mention in the sentimental memories of countless adults.

But increasingly, some educators and other professionals who work with children are asking a question that might surprise their parents: Should a child really have a best friend?

Most children naturally seek close friends. In a survey of nearly 3,000 Americans ages 8 to 24 conducted last year by Harris Interactive, 94 percent said they had at least one close friend. But the classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.

“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,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis. “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.”

“Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend,” she continued. “We say he doesn’t need a best friend.”

That attitude is a blunt manifestation of a mind-set that has led adults to become ever more involved in children’s social lives in recent years. The days when children roamed the neighborhood and played with whomever they wanted to until the streetlights came on disappeared long ago, replaced by the scheduled play date. While in the past a social slight in backyard games rarely came to teachers’ attention the next day, today an upsetting text message from one middle school student to another is often forwarded to school administrators, who frequently feel compelled to intervene in the relationship. (Ms. Laycob was speaking in an interview after spending much of the previous day dealing with a “really awful” text message one girl had sent another.) Indeed, much of the effort to encourage children to be friends with everyone is meant to head off bullying and other extreme consequences of social exclusion.

For many child-rearing experts, the ideal situation might well be that of Matthew and Margaret Guest, 12-year-old twins in suburban Atlanta, who almost always socialize in a pack. One typical Friday afternoon, about 10 boys and girls filled the Guest family backyard. Kids were jumping on the trampoline, shooting baskets and playing manhunt, a variation on hide-and-seek.

Neither Margaret nor Matthew has ever had a best friend. “I just really don’t have one person I like more than others,” Margaret said. “Most people have lots of friends.” Matthew said he considers 12 boys to be his good friends and says he sees most of them “pretty much every weekend.”

Their mother, Laura Guest, said their school tries to prevent bullying through workshops and posters. And extracurricular activities keep her children group-oriented — Margaret is on the swim team and does gymnastics; Matthew plays football and baseball.

As the calendar moves into summer, efforts to manage friendships don’t stop with the closing of school. In recent years Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y., has started employing “friendship coaches” to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else. 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 don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” said Jay Jacobs, the camp’s director. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”

But such an attitude worries some psychologists who fear that children will be denied the strong emotional support and security that comes with intimate friendships.

“Do we want to encourage kids to have all sorts of superficial relationships? Is that how we really want to rear our children?” asked Brett Laursen, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University whose specialty is peer relationships. “Imagine the implication for romantic relationships. We want children to get good at leading close relationships, not superficial ones.”

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?

“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,” said Michael Thompson, a psychologist who is an author of the book “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.”

“When a teacher is trying to tone down a best-friend culture, I would like to know why,” Dr. Thompson said. “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.”

Schools insist they don’t intend to break up close friendships but rather to encourage courtesy, respect and kindness to all. “I don’t see schools really in the business of trying to prevent friendships as far as they are trying to give students an opportunity to interact socially with other students in a variety of different ways,” said Patti Kinney, who was a teacher and a principal in an Oregon middle school for 33 years and is now an official at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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.”
This article is chock full of stuff that is totally absurd. It confuses me as to the benefit and/or why school administrations are constantly looking for something else to blame BESIDES being better educators.

Is it really detrimental to having a best friend? Is life better having many friends or a single friend?

I've always

I remember my best friends in childhood, and adulthood. In high school, I ran with a group of friends, that group of friends didn't include my best friend due to proximity. They lived nearby and he did not. A falling out with ONE of the friends, lead to a falling out with ALL of the friends. In one fell swoop, I lost all those friends. Since some of the circles overlapped, there was strife among all the friends.

What's most important to me in understanding that there is a level of intimacy of a best friend that isn't matched by a group of friends. Not everyone can be there when it's a group, and sometimes the group as a group fails.

Right now, my best friend is going through a hard time. I feel bad enough that I can not be there for him in person, but can only be there via online, and telephone. It sucks, but there's still a common bond that I know makes me feel good that none of the other friendships I have will ever come close to.
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Old 06-19-2010, 07:58 AM   #2 (permalink)
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I hate group activities. It's so impersonal. I would say going against human nature and encouraging large group activities is far more damaging than having a best friend. As an introvert, I absolutely can't deal with group situations for very long. Having a few close friends that I can spend time with 1 on 1 is vital to my survival. Unfortunately during my school years I couldn't keep a damn friend due to random shit. My friend in K-1st grade failed, I failed 4th grade(GO MEE!, Frickin Truancy..) I changed schools in 6th, was home schooled in 7th and put in a really small Christian school after that and there were only a few other boys my age. We got along well but never hung out outside of school because we all already traveled pretty far to the school it wasn't really convenient not to mention most of their parents were overprotective hardcore Christians that I'm pretty sure wouldn't have allowed us to do anything fun anyways.


So, um.. yeah..
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Old 06-19-2010, 08:39 AM   #3 (permalink)
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I think the best friends dynamic is different between girls than it is between boys in many ways. I'm guessing none of you gentlemen have ever heard, "WELL, I'm your BEST FRIEND, so you HAVE to do what I say."

And cyn, at the middle school level, regulating social stuff is a part of being an educator--it isn't the teacher's choice to have to do this stuff, but it's the nature of what the modern school is like. Kids bring this crap into the classroom and it affects how they learn, and it affects how other students learn. In order to minimize disruption, teachers and administrators have to handle it before it happens. Sure, you could say, don't bring it into the classroom, but with adolescents that's next to impossible. Further, one of the consequences (a positive one) I see with this is that it may lead to less cliques in high school and down the road, if everyone is encouraged to socialize with everyone else. Having worked (or attended) in both less cliquish middle schools/high schools and more cliquish middle schools/high schools, I would choose to work in the former over the latter every single time. They have an entirely different vibe.

It sucks that teachers have to interfere with stuff like this, but it is how things are now. I know a number of anecdotes related to stuff like this that I can't share here, unfortunately. I'm sure teachers would rather be spending their time on becoming better educators.
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Old 06-19-2010, 09:21 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Hey! I have a really fun idea: lets just control every aspect of a child's life to the point where we take away every potentially negative psychological harm when they're kids. It will be utopian, everyone will get along with every and have exactly the same friendship status. That way (this is the best part) when they're adults they'll have no fucking idea how to deal with anyone isn't honest or polite 100% of the time because we've deprived them of every opportunity to learn how.

Some people are assholes and they're always going to be assholes (maybe they were born that way?), kids need to learn about how to deal with them.


This would have been devastating to me as a child. My childhood wasn't defined by a huge group of friends, it was a long series of few very close friendships. I hate being in a room with more than about 3 people it. It drains me and I just want to leave. The most dreaded social experiences of my adolescence were dances and parties. I don't carry on conversations, I am perfectly comfortable with silence. I did not fit in, I did not want to fit in. I'd rather have been home reading a book.
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Old 06-19-2010, 09:51 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Hektore View Post
This would have been devastating to me as a child. My childhood wasn't defined by a huge group of friends, it was a long series of few very close friendships. I hate being in a room with more than about 3 people it. It drains me and I just want to leave. The most dreaded social experiences of my adolescence were dances and parties. I don't carry on conversations, I am perfectly comfortable with silence. I did not fit in, I did not want to fit in. I'd rather have been home reading a book.
Are you a George Carlin fan, by chance?

I'm the exact same way. Exact. I don't like most people and always see the negative, which turns me off from wanting to talk. I have about three people I talk to and have conversations with. For everyone else, I try to GTFO of talking as soon as I can. Introverted, I am.
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Old 06-19-2010, 02:38 PM   #6 (permalink)
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I don't have a problem with the schools having a hand in the behaviors of the students while they're in school. Our individualities inform how we socialize, so I think it should be up to the kids (& their parents, up to a point) who they play with after.

I was a loner, my kids run in packs; the tapestry of life weaves itself.
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Old 06-19-2010, 03:39 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Hektore View Post
Hey! I have a really fun idea: lets just control every aspect of a child's life to the point where we take away every potentially negative psychological harm when they're kids. It will be utopian, everyone will get along with every and have exactly the same friendship status. That way (this is the best part) when they're adults they'll have no fucking idea how to deal with anyone isn't honest or polite 100% of the time because we've deprived them of every opportunity to learn how.

Some people are assholes and they're always going to be assholes (maybe they were born that way?), kids need to learn about how to deal with them.

fuckin a right. it's time that people wake up and remember what their own damn childhood was like, and possibly even those lessons that they learned "the hard way." Everything is not going to be happy hunky dory their whole lives and they might as well get used to it. We can't regulate the experiences of every child down to who they can and can't be friends with.

There's got to be pain in order to know what pleasure is.
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Old 06-19-2010, 04:15 PM   #8 (permalink)
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snowy, your post reminds me of this response article I read on the subject...

Why Best Friends Really Are Bad for Girls

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Why Best Friends Really Are Bad for Girls

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Best friends are bad for you.

So says an article published in the New York Times a couple of days ago. Titled "A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding," it describes a new trend among some educators and child psychologists who are actively discouraging children from having best friends. The concern is that forming exclusive one-on-one friendships in childhood encourages cliques and bullying. Some camps have even gone so far as to set up "friendship coaches" to help campers become friends with everyone else.

The reaction to this article has been both fast and furious. Last I checked there were some 387 comments on the post, most of them negative. "God, spare us the overanxious theorists and control freaks," wrote one commenter. Others noted the "Orwellian" nature of the anti-Best Friend movement, decrying the "pathological adult over-thinking" that lies behind it and denouncing it as yet another version of the "Nanny State." It is an idea "beyond stupidity," wrote someone else.

Well, call me a stupid, Orwellian, pathologically over-thinking adult (it's OK, I've been called worse), but I found myself nodding in agreement while I read this article. So let me go out on a limb and tell you why I think the New York Times story has it right: Best friends aren't great for kids. Especially for girls.

Before I do that let me say upfront that I have the most wonderful collection of friends on earth. Some have been with me from childhood. Others came along through college, work and the various neighborhoods I've lived in and schools my kids have gone to along the way. They've seen me through assorted family crises, grade school, grad school, breakups, marriage . . . you name it. And now -- courtesy of my own blog (not to mention the glorious women of WomanUp) -- I've got a whole slew of new e-BFFS (my term of art) as well.

So I'm not against friendship. Kids and adults need friends. Lots of them. Especially girls and women.

What I am against is Best Friends -- capital B, capital F.

And the reason is that dyadic relationships often entail power asymmetries. (Can you tell that I was once a political scientist?) But it's true. When there are just two people involved, they are forever trying to square off against one another to see who'll be dominant. (Think Cold War). Whereas multi-polar worlds tend to yield a more diffuse, symmetrical balance of power. (Think contemporary Europe.)

I've got two kids and I've seen both of them scarred by having a best friend at a young age. I remember one of my son's early "best friends" -- I'll call him Gregory -- who threatened to dump my son unless he gave Gregory his healthy fruit bars at lunch. (My son has multiple allergies and is quite limited in what he can eat, dessert-wise.) I saw how much my son looked up to Gregory and was willing to follow his every lead, even when Gregory took advantage of him (as with said fruit bars.) And I remember feeling relieved when Gregory finally moved on to a new school and I no longer needed to worry that my son would grow up to be the classic "enabler" -- marrying an abusive alcoholic whom he'd be powerless to counter. (Yes, folks, that's a joke, but the sentiment behind it is not.)

As my son got older, however, I saw that boys and girls really differ in the ways that they approach friendship. Now that my son is 9, he mostly travels in packs of five or six. On any given day, any one of these young lads might be labeled his "best friend." But he's not choosy. They move in a gaggle. And if he happens to have a spat with one of them one day, the next day things are fine.

Not so with girls. My daughter, 6, has an ongoing love-hate relationship with her current best friend. When things are good, they're great. When they aren't so great -- because the other little girl doesn't like my daughter's sweater or haircut -- she's devastated for days at a time. Sometimes weeks.

Maybe that's just my kids. But it's a pattern I've seen replicated in other families as well. In my own life, there's no question that the most possessive and jealous relationships I've ever been in have all been with females. I remember when I was a junior in high school and started dating my first serious boyfriend and my best friend at the time was furious. I thought it was because she also liked him. But when she and I finally had it out, it turned out that she wasn't actually jealous of me (for dating him) but jealous of him for taking me away. Ditto another childhood friend who was so threatened when I made other friendships that she sought to systematically alienate those other girls from me so that it would just be the two of us.

And that's because -- let's face it -- girls are bitchy. They're bitchy at 4. They're bitchy at 14 (see: "Mean Girls"). And Lord knows they're bitchy at 44. (Don't believe me? Just go ask Carly Fiorina what she really thinks of Barbara Boxer's hair.)

Which is probably why, as I got older, I started surrounding myself with groups of friends, rather than locking into one single person. I also started having a lot of close male friends (and not of the "When Harry Met Sally" variety.)

And so, like the educators featured in the Times article, I now encourage my daughter to have as many play dates as possible, boys and girls alike. I never tell her who to have as a friend. I just encourage her to be open-minded. For just as it's wise to diversify your portfolio in the stock market so that you don't become too dependent on any one stock, so too is it wise in the world of friends. I want to protect her from being over-exposed to one person.

Which brings me to so-called helicopter parenting. Many of the commenters on the Times article criticize the schools and camps and psychologists cited in the piece for overly intervening in kids' "natural" friendships. Maybe so. But the reason these adults feel compelled to do this is precisely because parents, in unduly involving themselves in their children's lives, have forced them to do so. The article cites a school administrator whom parents had shown a bullying text that one child sent to another and had to spend the entire next day sorting it out.

We may all want to wax poetic about the good old days when we ran around in droves playing kick-the-can and neither our parents nor our teachers knew (or gave a damn) whom we played with. But I've got news for you: those days are over (Abby Sunderland notwithstanding). So it's not really fair to blame schools for wanting to micro-manage children's friendships. They do it because they are asked to do it and they are the ones who have to cope with the fallout within the population they've been entrusted to manage: kids. So if we're going to blame anyone, let's blame the parents. (And yes, I will happily step forward.)

But first, let me get back to today's to-do list. Which entails . . . setting up some play dates for my daughter with new friends.
On the topic of best friends and whether or not they are a net positive, I'm fairly undecided. I do think there's merit to the argument that they are possibly more detrimental for females than males. Anecdotes don't really count for much, but I find it interesting that I can only remember one moment in my entire childhood in which I was in a real "fight" (not physical) with my friends. As the article I quoted predicted, I don't think that "fight" lasted more than a day. My understanding is that very few females could say the same thing, but I'm also not female so I admit my ignorance.

I do agree with my quoted article that the real culprit here is the parenting much moreso than the schools. Many teachers and administrators are being pushed into increasing their intrusion into children's lives (a.k.a. parenting) by parents who expect it of them. The educators I know would love nothing more than to leave the parenting to the parents and focus primarily on the teaching, but it's just not that easy anymore.
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