In the annals of bad ideas, here’s a good one: Some schools are toying with the idea of banning best friends so kids who don’t have best friends don’t feel left out. While it appears to have been percolating over the last few years in the U.K., this terrible, no-good, very-bad idea has arrived stateside, with New York clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg telling CBSNews that not allowing your kid to have a best friend is an “intriguing social experiment.”
Intriguing indeed. Nothing will prepare a child for the real world more than forcing friendships with kids they don’t like, and abandoning the ones they do, so no one feels bad.
“Let’s face it, you can’t ban somebody from having a close relationship, and you can’t really ban somebody from having a best friend, but what the schools are trying to do is foster the idea of kids having more than a single friend,” Greenberg explained. “I see kids come in all week long who are feeling dreadful because they are excluded and because they are either nobody’s best friend or their best friend has moved on.”
Hey, that sucks.
As the parent of a 7-year-old girl, I will tell you it takes no more than a single 15-minute recess with no one to play with to wreck a kid’s whole day. But to address this, you can’t just declare best friends persona non grata. Instead, you’d ideally sit and talk through it with your kid, explaining novel concepts like how to be a good friend; how to cultivate existing friendships; how to make new ones to expand options; and finally—and maybe most importantly—how to play by yourself and enjoy it, too.
It’s not that there’s nothing salient behind this absurd ban. Yes, kids should be encouraged to have a wide circle of friends. Yes, by definition, picking one thing can mean missing out on another thing. But that doesn’t make having a best friend a zero-sum game. Having a best friend doesn’t prevent a child from playing with other children, or being friends, or even best friends, with more than one child. It doesn’t prevent them from being inclusive and changing it up. If anything, it’s just a senseless attempt at reverse engineering the world to make it easier, rather than showing kids how to navigate and improve the world as it is to make it better.
It also misses the actual research on how and why kids choose best friends in the first place. In short, that research shows that letting kids select close friendships on their own is critical to their development as individuals, because it’s often one of the first times a child makes a truly independent decision about who they spend their time with based on their own preferences.
In 2012, Leon Neyfakh looked at the old and new research on childhood friendships and found that having friends isn’t at all the same thing as popularity. General group acceptance is a totally different navigation than choosing a close or best friend, and the distinctions are important for well-being and personal growth. Neyfakh writes at The Boston Globe:
To make friends, it turns out, children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share. And in order to be a good friend — the kind that inspires loyalty and dedication — even a very young child must be not only fun to spend time with, but capable of being emotionally mature in ways that can be difficult even for grown-ups.
Letting a child pick a friend by their own criteria is critical because it’s often one of the first autonomous choices they make about their lives — almost every single other person in a child’s life is picked for them. If you have a child, you know this: Playdates are forced social alliances overseen by parents, caregivers and the sheer pressure of having something to do to fill a Saturday afternoon.
At the point a child picks a first/true best friend all on their own, usually between age 8 and 10, it’s a sign of understanding what matters not just to themselves, but to another person, too, Neyfakh writes. They aren’t just showing up on a playdate with a neighbor or another set of parents who thought your kids should be close because you both go to the same preschool or you really want to be in good with that kid’s mom who is a chef. They’re actively picking people they like. Don’t fuck with it.
Other research from the 1970s found that often well-liked kids don’t even necessarily have a best friend, while kids no one likes often do. And when researchers have meddled to help rejected kids fit in, they can arm them with skills that make them more generally likable, but it doesn’t actually land them a close friend as a result. This is mind-blowing, but at the same time, intuitive: If your kid is a reject, you can help that kid seem cooler, and more fun, and as a result, gain general acceptance from peers, but it won’t in any way guarantee that they will form a close friend as a result.
Kind of just like adults, you absolutely cannot force this shit.
As for how kids pick friends, the research Neyfakh cites says they use “a detailed, if subconscious, mental checklist when doing so,” evaluating whether the kid is fun, how the kid makes them feel about themselves, how trustworthy they are and what they have in common. Ask my daughter about why she likes her best friend, and she lists her own idiosyncratic reasons: “She makes up good games, and I love her hugs.”
All this points to the fact that when a child has made a good or best friend, you’d best let them have it, barring the cases where that friend is a bad influence. I’ve watched my daughter navigate the possessiveness, jealousy and exclusion that comes from best friend triangles with other kids who want to be the best friend, but aren’t. They coerce and cajole, guilt and threaten each other to abandon that friend, and pick them.
It comes with a side of sadness, headaches and guilt. So far I’ve probably put more parenting time in on trying to help her navigate friendships than any other issue. But I’m adamant, and I think most parents are, that children should be allowed to pick their own friends, so long as those friendships are not harmful or toxic.
All we can do is help them develop a criteria for what positive, healthy friendship looks like. This absolutely includes instructing them to be inclusive, and to be open to friendships with more than one child. This sometimes means letting them end friendships with shitty kids they’ve been playing with for years, because the parents are all buds. This sometimes means helping them nurse the wounds of friendships other kids cut off.
The caveat is that you shouldn’t make a kid play with anyone they don’t want to, so long as you’ve instilled the kind of values that don’t make your kid exclusive in some shitty way. After all, we already have a system in place for forcing people to stay in touch with, spend time and pretend to like people they hate: It’s called family.