Posts tagged Mary Institute

Friendship en masse

From a recent Duelling Experts Trend Story in the New York Times:

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.

— Hilary Stout, The New York Times (2010-06-16): A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding>

Later in the article, we call up another set of experts — in this case some psychologists (or, perhaps, many psychologists) who worry about this, and think that children ought to be raised so that they get the strong emotional support and security that comes with intimate friendships.

Meanwhile, nobody stops to ask a child what she wants or needs by way of friendship, or to consider what children might think or feel or want while caught in the crossfire of these duelling Experts. (The only time we hear from any children at all are when two hand-picked twins are pulled aside in the midst of a crowded, noisy, hyperathletic, parentally-supervised suburban mass play-date — the sort of thing I would have considered utter hell if I had been subjected to it at age 12 — and given the chance to utter a couple of brief sentences about whether or not they currently have best friends.) Or stops to consider whether different children might need different things, and that, since a given youngun knows something about her own daily social and emotional life, and the credentialed Professional Who Work With Children knows somewhere between little and nothing about it, she might actually have a better idea of who she likes, what she enjoys, what she needs, and what she benefits from better than an actual or effective stranger holding a degree or some bureaucratic power does.

Once again, a putative attempt to deal with very real social problems — the prison-yard social atmosphere in many government schools; the pervasiveness and cruelty of repeated bullying — is promptly run aground, because the real causes of the problem (the legal imprisonment of children in government schools, through compulsory attendance laws; the cultivation of violent masculinity; the refusal of educrats to give children any effective say over something as basic as who they are sitting next to from day to day, which classes they spend their time in, etc.) are all things that you can’t challenge without challenging institutional schooling itself or other, equally fundamental organizing principles of the system of power that we live under. So, instead, an alleged effort to deal with bullying becomes an institutional campaign to eradicate any form of social division or exclusivity — thus, any form of emotional intimacy — whatever, in favor of a well-regulated mass relationship. Of course, those who are the most likely to picked out and victimized by freelance bullying — introverted kids, who don’t open up easily to people they hardly know, and who prefer intense connections with a very small circle of close friends — rather than big, noisy social events sharing casual activities with dozens of acquaintances — are exactly those who are most likely to be targeted and treated as pathological, in need of getting adjusted good and hard, through the blandly smiling institutional bullying inflicted on them by entitled know-it-alls acting As adults — teachers and counselors.

Bullying is an awful thing, and I’m glad that lots of people associated with schools are finally coming around to recognizing that they have to do something about it. But trying to deal with it by shoving kids around to try and make them adopt friendship en masse — whether they want it or not — is going to turn out to be little more than punishing the victims, and extending government schooling’s war against introverts, making kids’ lives miserable in the name of their notion of Emotional Health.