Best Friends: Magnificient? Or Menace?

AKIE BERMISS: Say what you will about sex, drugs, money and fame  – I think the greatest currency on the planet is friendship.  You can’t get no where  with out the stout support of your friends.  Even horrible, psychotic criminals and terrorists have friends.  People that they confide in, spend time with, and depend on.  I guess in broad sense that could include quite a few people, but I think most of us have a discreet upper echelon of friends for whom all things are forgivable and with whom all things are better enjoyed.  Those are our friends.  Our good friends.

Sure, I am pleasant with many people.  And in this Facebook culture, the definition of the word “friend” is basically: someone I’ve met… maybe.  But good friends remain a more rarified concept.  And they are continuously being culled from the larger pools of acquaintances one has.  Sometimes its your oldest friend from grade school, or your college roommate, or a co-worker that you simply hit if off with.  There’s a growing feeling in the bosom when you are starting to become good friends with a person.  But one thing that is quite important to having good friends is knowing who they are from the masses.  You may see a bunch of friends everyday, you may spend a lot of time with them, have them over for dinner, help them out of jams — and yet they may still not be your good friends.  Many of my good friends, I only see a few times a year.  Sometimes, that’s just how it goes.

Still their friendship is no less important or palpable to me.  I feel it.  I understand.  I reciprocate.  Friendship is a crucial part of life.  Of growing and developing.  Of understanding oneself.  And so I was kind of taken aback by an article that appeared in last week’s Fashion section of the New York Times.  It spoke of a growing trend among parents and educators to prevent children from developing close and exclusive relationships.  By interrupting the bonding of children who seem to be getting to close to each other, these educators believe that they can foster a greater community of shared friendship.  It is asserted that having a “best friend” is ostracizing for the people who are NOT your best friends.  And that such things have a deleterious effect on developing children.  So the goal is to try and have everyone be a friend with everyone.  Creepy, no?

Instead of having exclusively play-dates, they plan larger get togethers where kids play with each other equally.  There’s no face-time, no time to get too close.  And I suppose from a purely theoretical standpoint, that seems kind of right.  Like making sure everyone is included means that there will be less opportunities for bullying to take place.  It means that everyone has equal footing.  And that the experience of “growing up” can be much more pleasant.

But on a visceral and emotional level: that sounds positively horrible.

Hierarchy is natural, just as bullying is natural.  Just as breaking off into cliques is natural.  Of course, you don’t want that kind of thing to go too far, but to try and eliminate it all completely is probably even worse.  One part of the article that struck me the most was talk of a camp in Phonecia, NY where some of the staff are “friendship counselors” and that their jobs entail forcing (for lack of a better word) all the campers to be friends with all the other campers.  This is not done through group/team-building activity.  It is done via manipulation: if two children appear to be getting to close to each other, the friendship counselors may change up the activities of those two campers — forcing them do things separately.

Its seems to me, this is a perfect way to ensure that this children never have ANY serious friends.  They will always be very pleasant, and facile, and unattached. My camp experience was definitely hugely influential in my formative years.  And let me tell you how our friendships broke down: we all had to be somewhat civil to each other because it was summer camp — but we had kids we hated, kids we envied, there were one or two kids who were really popular because of athletic prowess or beauty or for being funny.  And there were kids who swam all the time, and kids who wanted to play kickball everyday, and kids who talked too much and got made fun of.  There were kids who never spoke more than a few words at a time — sometimes this ostracized them from the group, sometimes it was part of what made them indispensable to the group.  Even now, I am still good friends with several of those people I went to camp with.  And not because we always had pleasant and wonderful experiences together.  Often times, I think a good friend has to be someone you’ve been so mad at that you’ve not spoken to them for a couple of years.  That’s a real relationship.

As per my group playdates, I still attend those from time to time, but I find large groups a bit boring.  There’s usually very little going on beneath the cosmetic level of having a good time.  There’s no deeper, darker purpose.  There’s something lacking reality in the whole scenario.  I’d rather keep my get-togethers more full and focused.  A close friend here, a close friend there.  Sometimes two or three.  Sometimes several, but only on days of deliberate high celebration.   And still, sometimes, I find my friends annoying or burdensome or hard to get along with (as I can only be too sure they find me from time to time), still I think of them as my close friends because we’ve shared so much.  I know I can trust them.  Depend on them.  I know their secrets.  And they know mine.   And that’s all there is to it.

And yes, my parents and educators and camp counselors were involved in my life and guided my somewhat towards who I would be friends with.  But they were rarely so hands-on when I was young simply to prevent me from forming certain types of relationships.  There is such a thing as going too far.  But then, while I’d expect a friend to know when things had indeed gone too far — I never really expected my parents to do so.

I guess their meddling was important to my development too.

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: I was frankly terrified by the recent New York Times article which discussed ways in which parents and teachers are encouraging their children to be friends with “everyone” rather than having one particular best friend.

Who is friends with Everyone? Not anyone I’d like to be friends with, personally. People are all different, like beautiful little snowflakes, and sometimes you come across a snowflake that just rubs you the wrong way and you can’t stand to be around it—and what’s wrong with that? Children need to learn to be kind to one another, certainly; we can’t have them all growing up thinking it’s acceptable to shove each other and be rude, but do we have to teach them that we have to be friends with everyone? This, to me, devalues the concept of friendship. I have no problem with socialism, but I am strenuously opposed to Social Socialism. How sad would it be if you liked every television show equally to every other one? If you enjoy eating all food the same and have no favorite food, what’s the point of living?

The Best Friend is also a rite of passage. Your childhood best friend teaches you about who you are, and who you want to be. When I was very small, my best friends were always bratty only children whom I idolized and followed everywhere. When I went to middle school, my best friends were the other nutty, free-spirited girls, and together we made up fantasy lives and made puffy-paint shirts and were disdainful of boys. When I was in high school, my best friends were cynical and hilarious and kept me sane. I remember each and every one of my best friends from birth, and still have many of them. You know who I don’t remember? All those other random little children who passed in and out of my life; with whom I was cordial and kind but shared no particular bond.

Finally, early friendships are the first important relationships you have with people who are not related to you. They set the stage for the most important relationships in your lives—romantic, intimate relationships with people who might become lifelong partners. If you grow up being friends with everyone, whose to say you won’t find it completely normal to be intimate with everyone? That, after college, is a recipe for disaster.

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