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. Indeed, most adults would be able to easily tell you all about their childhood best friends when asked – no matter how old they are. Most adults would acknowledge that it is natural for most kids to pair up and have one best friend. But in recent years, educators and parents are questioning the concept of a “best friend” and even going so far as to discourage them.
Some of the decline of the best friend concept has to do with a shift in how kids socialize. Kids of generations past often grew up with kids that lived on their block and went to school with them. They had less homework and more freedom to roam the neighborhood and play together after school every day. These days, getting together with friends often has to be arranged with parents and are with kids less local. Additionally, with the advent of cell phones and the internet, kids have more access to friends in a very immediate way that don’t live close by.
However, the decline in the best friend pairing amongst kids is also due to adults in their lives running interference. Many schools make a concerted effort to split friendship pairs when choosing which classrooms to place kids in, in an effort to discourage exclusivity, possessiveness, cliques, and bullying. But what is the effect of encouraging kids to have groups of friends rather than one really close one?
Some psychologists believe that close childhood friendships increase self esteem and confidence and help develop social skills for healthy adult relationships. Kids not only can bask in the adoration of their closest friend, but also they develop a deep empathy for that friend. Additionally, if that friend makes other friends they are forced to learn to share the person and negotiate the other relationships. Twins can be a great example of this, as especially same-gendered twins tend to also share close friends. It can be tricky but a great opportunity for learning for the twins and the friend to learn to negotiate these relationships in a kind and loving way.
Encouraging kids to develop more than one friendship is probably not a bad idea. It is good for children to be exposed to a variety of types of relationships and influences and to have more than one friendship to rely on and enjoy. Some of the most painful childhood experiences can come from betrayal, exclusion and loss related to friendship, and so having a circle of friends can help to mitigate some of that (although not all, and arguably that is not a bad thing – to learn how to deal with the inevitable pain that comes with some relationships). On the other hand, having a deeply intimate friendship can be incredibly enriching and create a lifelong bond that is unique and special. It seems a shame to keep our children from having it simply because we hope to protect them from what some would consider to be important life lessons.