When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I were nearly inseparable. We held hands on the playground and spent our weekends together — hanging out, reading books, listening to records.
The relationship contributed to who I am today, and we’re still pals. So I was surprised to learn that some schools are discouraging close friendships in the hopes of preventing bullying.
From “click” to clique
It’s not that concerned educators are “out to get” best friends. But they are trying to nudge close pals apart a little bit, so that they don’t become too insular. Twosomes can turn into threesomes, and such cliques are often behind bullying. “When three or four kids get together, they can decide someone is not good enough to join their group. They can ramp each other up to do worse and worse things,” says Debra Pepler, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, who is an expert on bullying and helps to run PREVNet.ca, a bullying information website.
Buddies who always sit beside each other and spend recess in their own little world don’t always build relationships with other kids. And that’s a growing concern in today’s classrooms, which often include students with special needs (ranging from kids with autism to those who use wheelchairs) and children from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. To make sure students really get to know one another and prevent discrimination, teachers take existing friendships into consideration and seldom allow kids to choose their own groups or teams so as to avoid the “picked last in gym” phenomenon, which is a set-up for making kids feel like outcasts.
Meanwhile, just as adult relationships aren’t always healthy or turn sour over time, kids can also get wrapped up in negative dynamics. Pepler says some close friends actually bully each other: They know each other’s secrets and can make a pal upset with a few choice words — whether about chubby ankles, a crappy slapshot or that time he wet his pants last year.
The “best” of friends
Still, most of the time, kids who have best friends derive huge benefits, both socially and emotionally. “Friendship is overwhelmingly associated with good outcomes,” says Kelly Schwartz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. Best friendship teaches kids how to be intimate with someone who is not a family member. It teaches them about trust and give-and-take. It’s a rehearsal for grown-up friendships and romantic relationships.
Schwartz says that while the ebb and flow of childhood friendships (few endure longer than a school year or two) may be heartbreaking for kids, the experience of moving on is important too. “They learn that some friends are replaceable and that the good ones stick,” says Schwartz.
• Ask your child how his relationships are going and talk to him about what it means to be a good friend.
• Model healthy relationships with your own friends.
• If your child is becoming too insular with a BFF, consider signing her up for a drama class or soccer club where she’ll meet new people.
• If your child has joined a mean clique, talk to him about the behaviour you’re seeing from the group and encourage him to question it.
• Encourage your child to move on if a friendship has become dysfunctional.
• Don’t try to shield your child from heartbreak — she learns from it.