Sharing a unique bond with one special person can seem, in a word, magical. This feeling is perhaps felt even more by the child exploring her first relationships beyond the family unit. According to Michael Thompson, PhD, and co-author of the book, Best Friends, Worst Enemies; Understanding the Social Lives of Children (Ballantine Books, 2002), “When two children are capable of the deep love of a best friendship, it is a naturally beautiful thing, and there isn’t anyone that wouldn’t want that type of connection. Real best friends understand reciprocity and mutuality, the two keystones of a true friendship.”
But is having a “BFF” desirable? “The concept of having a best friend has been glorified by books and television,” says Thompson. “Moms tend to idealize the idea of a best friend. Children do need friends to be happy but not necessarily one best friend.”
The Beginnings of Friendship
Young children seek out others with common interests and complimentary personalities, and, by playing together, develop essential social skills such as cooperating and being kind.
Although they may articulate it differently, when on the lookout for friends, both boys and girls cite the same qualities. In interviews conducted by Thompson, girls are more likely to mention “secret-keeping” as a key component, while boys will “say standing up for each other in difficult situations.” Both are seeking the same attributes: loyalty, comfort, shared interests, fun, and reciprocal feelings. What can a parent do to help foster such bonds?
Mental-health therapist Tamara Hill, says, “Parents need to help their children correctly identify what a true friendship is and discourage their children from fostering a ‘weak’ friendship based on superficial charm, popularity, or prestige” which can often have a negative effect on children’s self-esteem.
A child’s temperament plays a strong role in how she approaches and cultivates friendships. Some children have a personality well-suited to an intense, one-on-one friendship, while others do not. Sometimes the desire to have a best friend is based less on temperament and more on the fear and anxiety of being alone. A child may want to pair up so that they always have someone to play with and depend on. Thompson says that mothers sometimes push their child to have a best friend as a kind of replacement mother, someone who protects and comforts their child like a mother would. But, he cautions, that is not the role of a friend.
Note that although some children will find lifelong friends in early childhood, most won’t until they are teens. Maurice Elias, PhD, a psychology professor at Rutgers University, says, “Teens share many identity-building experiences, shared secrets, perhaps a little rebellion. They are discovering who they are and who they want to be, and the sharing and experiences involved in these explorations can build strong, lasting ties.”
Unfortunately, a best friendship that was at one time reciprocal can become clingy and suffocating. One child may decide he no longer wants to be best friends and may say it outright or just withdraw from the relationship. Says Thompson, “Eventually, many ‘best’ friendships will break up. Just like a romantic couple, one of the children may decide they want to ‘see other people,’ and the other will be very upset.”
Some parents and school officials have become concerned that best friendships aren’t good for children. A 2010 New York Times article quoted teachers and counselors saying they went out of their way to discourage such. They worry that when two children pair up, it promotes exclusivity and cliques, and can lead to hurt feelings and bullying.
Thompson says, “Parents tell me, ‘I want my child to branch out so she won’t be crushed if their best friend abandons them,’ but there is no such thing as ‘friendship insurance.’ Having a best friend does not protect a child from getting hurt and neither does having a lot of friends.”
Children need the freedom to choose their own friends and to decide how many they want to have. —>
Parents may think that they know which kids will make good friends for their child, but that is not always true. Just like in adult friendships, some people “click” and some don’t. Children need the freedom to choose their own friends and to decide how many they want to have.
Encourage your younger child to have a variety of relationships by organizing play dates with a few different classmates and enrolling your child in after-school activities such as an art class or a sports league.
As children get older, parents need to be familiar with their kids’ friends—both in person and online. But adults shouldn’t try to micromanage. Thompson says, “Often adults interfere with children’s relationships because they are thrown back to their own memories of middle-school feelings.” Instead, get to know your child’s friends by hosting gatherings at your house and volunteering to drive kids to approved activities like bowling or a movie. Encourage your child to spend face-to-face (not face-to-screen) time with their friends.
Ups and Downs
Parents can help their children by being good social role models and keeping an open dialogue, Elias says. “Parents can usually get further with children via inquiry rather than a lecture. We want to help kids learn the difference between real friends and not real friends. We want them to understand that friends are nice to one another, share common interests, and care about each other: You can trust your real friend and they can trust you.”
Even the best of friendships experience ebbs and flows. If your child is upset over a fight, Elias suggests helping her to determine whether her friend is a ‘real’ friend. If she is, then help your child understand that all friends have good and bad days together, and teach her the tools to work through conflicts.
Having a true “best friend” can be great but also hard to find. Hill says, “If a true friendship is found and appropriate boundaries sustained, having a best friend can offer substance to the lives of children and teens.”
Randi Mazzella has had the same best friend for more than 25 years.
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