What do teen friendships look like from your vantage point? Large groups of kids hanging out freely and loosely, where “membership” is casual and inclusive?
Or—on the opposite end of the spectrum—lots of best-friend pairs who spend most of their time together to the exclusion of others? Or somewhere in between?
Whatever you’re observing, the growing debate concerning the traditional “best friend” relationship is bound to capture your interest, and you’re invited to join the fray. According to some educators and psychologists and youth advocates, young people seeking out and maintaining best friends is a bad idea—one that tends to spawn cliques, bullying, and other relational problems that plague adolescents.
“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,” Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis, recently told the New York Times. “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. We say he doesn’t need a best friend.”
As you can imagine that blunt pronouncement has caused a bit of a stir. Among those caught up in the acrimony is conservative author and editor, Jonah Goldberg, who pointedly rebuts Laycob and her allies in a Chicago Tribune column: “It is a bizarre symptom of our hyper-rationalist age that people are forced to articulate why best friends are valuable to kids. For the record, I think removing best friends from childhood is a barbarous and inhumane act, akin to amputating a limb from an athlete. You can still have a childhood without a best friend, just as you can still be an athlete without a leg. But why would you voluntarily make someone’s life so much harder? Having someone with whom you can share the joys and discoveries of early life is a gateway not just into adulthood, but humanity.”
What’s Behind Best-Friends Phobia?
Parents and school officials today are a lot more involved in—and protective of—teens’ social lives than in years past. In our age of ugly text messages that lead to suicides, adults tend to jump in and help fix frayed feelings at the first sign of a problem rather than let kids fight their own battles and solve interpersonal issues independently. So the idea, best-friend foes say, is that larger and more inclusive groups of teen friends will help prevent petty jealousies that lead to bullying, fighting, and damaged emotions.
“When two children discover a special bond between them, we honor that bond, provided that neither child overtly or covertly excludes or rejects others,” Jan Mooney, a psychologist at the Town School, a nursery-through-eighth-grade private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, told the Times. “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.”
Other outfits are taking radical, proactive approaches. One of them, Timber Lake Camp—a coed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y.—has hired “friendship coaches” to work with campers this summer in the hopes that everybody will be buddies. So if two kids seem too focused on each other, camp officials put them on different teams, seat them at different spots in the cafeteria, or encourage them to foster new friendships with others.
“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” Jay Jacobs, the camp’s director, told the Times. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”
The Other Side of the Coin
Many professionals disagree with this growing best-friends phobia, noting the multidimensional benefits of best friends and close friends. For one, some psychologists believe such friendships and alliances increase self-esteem and confidence while laying the foundation for healthy adult relationships through learning interpersonal skills such as empathy, listening, consolation—even fighting and forgiveness.
“When a teacher is trying to tone down a best-friend culture, I would like to know why,” Michael Thompson—a psychologist and author of the book Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children—told the Times. “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.”
Three Critical Questions (and Some Food for Thought)
The critical questions to ask are, “What do I see? Where do I stand on the best-friends issue? What am I going to do about it?”
- What Do I See? For youth workers, this is probably the easiest question to answer. You get a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of teenagers that no one else observes—not parents, not teachers, not psychologists. Hone in on the question and put your powers of observation into overdrive: What do friendships look like in my ministry? Who hangs with whom? Are there big, friendly groups? Are there lots of cliques? Are my kids interacting in healthy ways? Is anyone consistently left out? Are there danger signs? As parents, we don’t always see our kids in these arenas. But when we do, ask yourself the same questions.
- Where Do I Stand on the Issue? Ohh…getting into murkier waters here. We’ve all experienced the good, bad, and ugly of teen relationships, both in our kids’ lives and in our own. How we view the importance of best friends is influenced by what we see and what we’ve experienced. As a youth worker, maybe you’re inundated with cliques and pettiness and exclusivity in your youth group—or maybe you find kids going out of their way to include others. As a parent maybe you have observed the same thing in social settings. Maybe you’re particularly sensitive to kids being left out because you were brushed aside by your peers as a kid—or maybe you were the most popular in school. Wherever you end up, the hard work is navigating all the variables so you can articulate a solid point of view.
- What Am I Going to Do about It? Whichever direction you choose, involve others. Parents—involve your spouse. Youth workers—involve your teen leaders, adult volunteers and staff, and parents. The more informed you keep these folks about how you want to address the health of youth group members’ relationships, the more input and assistance you’ll receive.
It’s obvious that there are serious problems in teens’ peer friendships—some have arisen in the last decade while others have existed since the beginning of time. There’s no question that youth ministries must be in the business of discouraging cliques and exclusivity and bullying while looking out for the kids who’re left in the margins. They must also remain aware of how changing culture and technology (i.e. those harmful text messages) is morphing the age-old problem of interpersonal conflict.
The Baby and the Bathwater
That said, there’s one element that’s remained glaringly unaddressed in everything I’ve looked at regarding the pros and cons of this subject: This best-friends phobia comes from the same school of reasoning that declares, “We have to rid the world of alcoholism, so let’s get rid of alcohol”…or “We must prevent teen pregnancies, so let’s not talk about sex or let kids date” It’s chucking the entire baby along with the bathwater, tub, mirror, light fixtures, and shampoo bottles instead of focusing on the actual problem at hand. Instead of outlawing best friendships among teens in the hopes that cliques and bullying will diminish, why not encourage teenagers instead to obey Christ’s command to love others as they love themselves (Galatians 5:14)—and all that requires and entails?
Is it worth discouraging best friendships so that all kids might be friends with all other kids, and no one ever gets hurt or confused or wounded? Some would answer yes, some no.
Wherever you stand, the answer’s in your power to bring to life.
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