Saturday, June 19, 2010

If Everyone Can't Be Friends, Then No One Can

For the last day or so I've been mulling over this article  from Wednesday's New York Times online, in which educational experts propose that children don't need intimate "best" friendships.

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.”

I've written before about the intense emotional flavor of children's friendships, particularly among girls, many of whom -- my own included -- demonstrate a remarkable capacity for serial exclusivity. Much is made of the feminine talent for multitasking, but friendship is where that talent all too often hits the wall, the general rule being that a girl with  two friends can't be friends with both at the same time.

My group of high-school friends had several concentric layers:  a herd of about ten girls who hung out together by tacit agreement that a Friday night spent in each other's company was not a Friday night wasted;  a knot of five who could always be depended on to get each other's jokes;  and within that five, a shifting network of twosomes.

In the summertime, I might spend three days straight with a particular friend, alternating nights at each other's houses, going swimming or shopping or lying under the window unit in the bedroom, talking. During those three days, all I would want in the world was the company of that friend. All other friendships would seem as vain pursuits, all other friends as annoying and inferior, particularly in their understanding of me.

And then we'd get sick of each other, or our mothers would get sick of driving us back and forth. We'd drift back into our regular routines, only to repeat the performance with other friends the next week. As far as I can recall, there was nothing particularly hurtful about this pattern;  what went around came around, and in fact, those friendships endure to this day. Whatever fallout there was from these assignations and breakups has long since been forgiven, and what astonishes me now, every time I see one of these friends -- even if it's been ten years -- is how much I know about her, how familiar she is to me, her gestures, her laugh, her habits which remain unaltered by the alien vesture of her adult life. There might be much about her everyday existence, her marriage and children and work, which will remain forever a closed book to me, and yet I know this person. However strange we might become to each other, I will always greet her with joy, as part of myself.

I think The Anchoress is onto something when she says,

This isn’t about what’s good for the children; it is about being better able to control adults by stripping from them any training in intimacy and interpersonal trust. Don’t let two people get together and separate themselves from the pack, or they might do something subversive, like…think differently.
This move against “best friends” is ultimately about preventing individuals from nurturing and expanding their individuality. It is about training our future adults to be unable to exist outside of the pack, the collective.

I also think that this is, perhaps less sinisterly, another instance of adults' stepping into micromanage what ought largely to be left alone.  Having more or less exhausted our capacity for ensuring children's physical safety, now we're lobbying for emotional helmet laws as well.

One phenomenon which I've noticed in recent years, and which I attribute at least in part to our cultural obsession with helmets and knee pads and booster seats for 9-year-olds, is that many of my teenaged daughter's peers are afraid to drive. Their sixteenth birthdays come and go, and they don't . . . really . . . care . . .  whether they ever drive themselves anywhere or not. We know young adults of voting age who have never driven -- though they're licensed drivers -- on an interstate highway. (To be honest, my own 16-year-old doesn't have a driver's license, either, but that's because it took her parents a long time to get her into driver's ed, and now she has to have a learner's permit for an entire calendar year before she can drive alone. Still . . . ). On the one hand, caution is good, of course. On the other hand, if we all thought too much about the statistical dangers of climbing into a car, nobody would ever go anywhere. And I do wonder what's going to happen to all these sixteen-to-twenty-year-olds when their mothers aren't around to drive them places.

I also wonder what's going to happen to children when the adults in their lives intimate to them that one-on-one friendship is something suspect, tantamount in itself to bullying, and therefore to be avoided.

An aside:  This also seems to me like one more instance of imposing on children, "for their own good," something up with which a grownup would not put.

Another aside:  As I responded to another Anchoress reader's critique of the limitations of homeschooling, there's not actually anything wrong with having siblings be your best friends. As it happens, all my children do have close friendships outside our family -- at this writing Amicus is sweltering away happily, I presume, with several of his on a Scout trip to the site of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Having been sustained, ourselves, by intense friendships in childhood and adolescence, Aelred and I both encourage this kind of thing actively.

But the fact that our children take pleasure in each other's company at home is pure gold. I might have spent time this week setting up separate play dates for today for both Helier and Crispina, and time today driving them to and from said playdates, and that would have been an okay way to use up the day. But right now I'm sitting here watching them through the window:  they're both up in the crotch of our huge old pecan tree, playing some game involving the zipline (they're now both so tall that ziplining means stepping down out of the tree and walking across the yard with hands upraised, like people going to jail), and I think, Why would I have bothered? and Boy, am I glad I didn't. 


Anonymous said...

"This isn’t about what’s good for the children; it is about being better able to control adults"

Surely it's about being better able to control children?

William Kamkwamba is currently my favourite example of unschooling: his parents not being able to pay school fees just happened to give him access to a basic library, a junkyard, and the free time to do something with them.


Sally Thomas said...

I think you're right, though you have to wonder about the consequences in adulthood for children raised on this kind of ethos.

In the short term I think of it as really, really draconian preventive medicine. It's like a dermatologist saying, "Well, some people suffer horribly from eczema, so we've decided that skin is really unnecessary, and are encouraging all our patients to come in for a flaying." (ok, maybe that's a draconian example. what dermatologist would do himself out of a job that way?)

It's also a way of moving responsibility away from individuals. Instead of correcting individual behavior, the gesture is to control the group, effectively punishing everyone for the wrongdoings of certain people, who wind up suffering no more than the people who don't bully or viciously exclude.

As one commenter at The Anchoress points out, the NYT article is dealing with the M.O. of one tony private school's counseling department, which hardly counts as a sweeping trend. Though if it's happening in one place, it may well be happening other places as well, especially as school administrators deal with the legal fallout of bully-suicide incidents and things like that, where lawsuits are involved. And this counseling department probably didn't develop its policies out of thin air.

A library and a junkyard sounds about right. Great story.

Paul said...

Yes, it is dire and likely to have more profound long-term consequences than the counsellors imagine.

One of the things that struck me in Kamkwamba's story was the importance of friendship: he couldn't have done it without help from two close friends (one of whom happened to be the local squire's son, who turned over his pocket money to the cause). That's not an aspect that got much coverage in the "lone genius" narrative that dominates the reviews.

Mac said...

"emotional helmet laws" -- Ha!

Sally Thomas said...

My husband has long maintained that the day is coming when children will be required to wear helmets when riding in cars. He used to think that this was the next thing coming down the pike, but then decided that dog ordination in the Episcopal Church would probably happen first.

Nancy Piccione said...

Thanks for your reflection on friendship. So much to ponder; I can't even start on the unschooling because I have to be somewhere) I've been thinking about your writing and the NY Times article, and wish I had more time to write about it!

I did get a chance to reference it here.

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks for the link, Nancy, and for a good and thoughtful post yourself. I'll have to go back and revisit that meditation on Universalis (which I've only just discovered, thanks to a mention by two of my readers).

Anne-Marie said...

At dinner today my sister mentioned the book "You Can't Say You Can't Play" by Vivian Paley, which comes at the issue of friendship (or at least friendly behaviour) from the opposite side. The author is a kindergarten teacher who, after talking to many children, instituted in her class the policy that gives the book its title.

My sister and I agreed that there is a big difference between seeking to eliminate intimate friendships and seeking to eliminate exclusion. In fact learning when and how to conduct intimate friendships while not unfairly excluding other people is a big part of growing up.

My security word is acchu. Gesundheit!

Sally Thomas said...

A votre sante!

I haven't seen the Paley book, but from what you say, it sounds like a saner approach than "we say Johnny doesn't need a best friend." Johnny may need the best friend, but Johnny and the best friend also need to learn to be gracious.

I will say that this is a difficulty one of my children is experiencing at the moment (as in, on the receiving end, not the dishing-out one, though it could easily swing that way at any time), and as a parent it's hard to know what to do, other than to ensure that the child in question spends more time with other kids who haven't paired up in the same way.