BFF = Best Friends Forbidden

by Robert Pondiscio
June 17th, 2010

Some educators and other professionals who work with children are discouraging children from having best friends in favor of encouraging kids to socialize as a group.  Some school officials don’t like to see kids pairing off and are intent on “discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity” because of concerns about cliques and bullying.  “Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend,” Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis tells the New York Times. “We say he doesn’t need a best friend.” Says the paper:

That attitude is a blunt manifestation of a mind-set that has led adults to become ever more involved in children’s social lives in recent years. The days when children roamed the neighborhood and played with whomever they wanted to until the streetlights came on disappeared long ago, replaced by the scheduled play date. While in the past a social slight in backyard games rarely came to teachers’ attention the next day, today an upsetting text message from one middle school student to another is often forwarded to school administrators, who frequently feel compelled to intervene in the relationship. (Ms. Laycob was speaking in an interview after spending much of the previous day dealing with a “really awful” text message one girl had sent another.) Indeed, much of the effort to encourage children to be friends with everyone is meant to head off bullying and other extreme consequences of social exclusion.

Somebody who knows more about child rearing and psychology (paging Dan Willingham!) is going to have to weigh in here.  I’m out of my depth, but intuitively this sounds not only odd and an overreaction, but a needlessly meddlesome intrusion into children’s lives.  Best friends are bad for kids?  Seriously??

21 Comments »

  1. Ok, I’m not a psychologist, so in that sense I am out of my depth. But I think we can call on life experience here. I find it disturbing that adults would require children to work and play in groups and not with close friends (or, heaven forbid, alone). They apparently assume that close friends are exclusive and therefore hostile. They don’t consider that groups can also be exclusive and hostile (and shallow). Even in an “equalized” group, where everyone is nice to each other, the members may not appreciate each other as individuals.

    You don’t solve hostility by forbidding intimate friendships. You don’t increase the level of kindness by ensuring that no one expresses a preference for anyone. Personal affinity can’t be dictated, and it often inspires the best in us. We are drawn to people for reasons. We don’t always know them, but they unfold over time. We also have our dislikes, and there are reasons for those as well. Being civil to all is one thing. Being everyone’s friend is another.

    I suspect that sooner or later people will start to see through this group craze. What puzzles me is that so many even find it palatable, let alone reasonable. Why are they so scared of individuals (or pairs) and so blithely trusting of groups? Why doesn’t the idea of mandatory “pack” activity make them deeply wary, if not ill?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 17, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  2. @Diana What puzzles me is that so many even find it palatable, let alone reasonable.

    Well said, Diana.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 17, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  3. Don’t try to micromanage childrens’ relationships; just take away the stupid cell phones. No child need a cell phone unless possibly one that can only make calls to a parent. I know, I know, “genie is out of the bottle.”

    Comment by JB — June 17, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  4. This does not surprise me. Our middle school often feels like a big counseling program where feelings are much more important than academics and discipline. Our superintendent cites literature that says teachers must be “in relationship” with students (sounds icky to me). He tells us to go “love ‘em up!” When given the choice between having a sole assistant principal (desperately needed ) and a counselor last year, he chose the latter. We’ve purchased a subscription to AnComm, an on-line service that enables students to anonymously contact adults at school to discuss personal problems –turning us all into counselors. We also have a twenty-minute daily advisory class –complete with lessons about how to make friends –that also makes us de facto counselors. My principal is much more concerned about my trying to bond with the mischievous boys in my classes than in anything I actually teach.

    It’s the Dr. Phil show, not school! Why? Our superintendent would say these forms of “support” are characteristics of “high-functioning” schools around the country; they are the keys to student success (plus we need to do all this to qualify as a “School to Watch”). I’m dubious. I suspect that one reason the adults embrace this stuff with alacrity is that they view this emotions and relationships as more meaningful and personally interesting than the academics that neither they nor their students really love. Besides school isn’t about teaching knowledge, it’s about making kids love school so that they will become life-long learners. So our paramount responsibility is to make their experience as nurturing and agreeable as possible. Teacher, drop that lesson plan on Copernicus: go make sure that Tyler has a group of friends!

    Comment by Ben F — June 17, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  5. I’m not a psychologist but I have read summaries of research indicating that kids with fewer but closer relationships tend to have more successful marriages as adults. In a sense, they are in training. The conclusionwas children should be encouraged to have a best friend.

    Comment by Janice — June 17, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  6. I’m glad I don’t work in your school, Ben. I fear the language alone would be crazy-making. Your post reveals a serious and legitimate divide in education. I’m not (are you listening, Nancy Flanagan?) against “teaching the whole child” even if I do tend to be skeptical of the claims made for “social and emotional learning.” Like you, Ben, I tend to think that these soft skills tend to be attractive to people in education for any number of reasons, mostly borne of a true sense of caring and empathy.

    But damned if we don’t give off very mixed signals about just what we want our schools to do with our children. Yes, we want academic excellence and higher test scores. And some of us do get our hackles up when schools act more like parents than teachers. But let something go terribly wrong, like that poor girl in Massachusetts who committed suicide after being bullied, and we reflexively ask how the schools could have prevented such a tragedy.

    In short we’re not clear on our expectations for schools. And given our tendency to react — even overreact — I’m not sure it’s a solvable problem.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 17, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  7. I agree with Nancy; you can’t mandate friendship and groups are not necessarily better than pairs. MS girl cliques are notorious, and with good reason. Academically, my experience matches Ben’s. The school my older kids attended as a 7-8 JHS changed (over parent opposition) to a 6-7-8 MS just before my younger kids arrived. The whole school climate had changed, despite having many of the same teachers. The JHS had had the same strong academic atmosphere as did the HS to which it fed. At the MS, the academic focus was drowned in a sea of artsy-crafty, touchy-feely mush, delivered by teams of teachers and wrapped in groupwork. All students had NEST (nurture, encourage, ??, trust, I think). My third kid was unlucky enough to have the drama (drama was mandatory) teacher for NEST and I was called in for a full team conference to discuss his comment “I don’t want to be loved or understood in school; I have parents for that. I just want to learn something.” My youngest was lucky enough to have the soccer coach, who told the kids to do whatever they wanted but keep the noise low enough that he wouldn’t get in trouble.

    Comment by momof4 — June 17, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  8. I’m listening. And thinking this is a good blog topic.

    While I agree with Ben that “loving ‘em up” is, indeed, borderline creepy, this feels like another one of those false dichotomies. There’s plenty of evidence that relationships matter very much in student learning, although outlawing best friends is way over the edge and will likely backfire.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 17, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  9. @Nancy Of course it’s a false dichotomy (although I don’t hear a lot of “Thou Shalt Not Consider The Child’s Emotional Well-Being” being bandied about). But I despair of getting the balance right, per my last comment, because we tend to change our minds based on what’s happening at any given moment.

    @ momof4 Does your “third kid” have Godparents? Where does the line form?

    @ Janice. Now that you mention it, perhaps marriage is something we should rethink. It is exclusionary. And I kinda feel bullied sometimes.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 17, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  10. Having a basket of friends rather than one or two sounds more like an investment strategy to spread risk. Kids learn what we teach them.

    Comment by tm willemse — June 17, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

  11. The close friends we had growing up tend to be the ones we keep in contact with long after graduation. The classmates whom we were merely friendly with tend to fall by the wayside.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — June 17, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

  12. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by avery reese and zoe jaden, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: Best Friends Forbidden? Some schools discouraging BFFs to ward off bullying and exclusion. Seriously? http://bit.ly/9kg8Z7 [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention BFF = Best Friends Forbidden « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- Topsy.com — June 17, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  13. Schools need to have a balance between the affective and cognitive domains. Middle schools probably could use a tick more of the former, primarily due to the onset puberty.

    That being said, I always put the emphasis on the cognitive (K-6) believing fully that school was for academic learning and the rest of a child’s maturation would take care of itself.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 18, 2010 @ 6:18 am

  14. Paul: In my experience, the middle schools have gone so far overboard on the affective side that the academics seem to have been marginalized. The difference – at the same school – between my older kids’ years and my younger ones was huge. The only hold-outs who tried to maintain an acadmic focus were the older teachers, all of whom have undoubltedly been retired for years. For the rest, it was all artsy-crafty, all touchy-feely all the time.

    Comment by momof4 — June 18, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

  15. The middle school movement had a valid observation: children at this age are obsessed with their social lives, social standing, and (for the girls more than the boys) their feelings. They just did the wrong thing with that observation: they caved in to it. What’s much more valuable to kids this age is to be aware of their heightened interest in themselves but to also provid them with the opportunity to escape from constant navel-gazing. Through academics, sports, service, music, whatever.

    Comment by JB — June 18, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  16. JB,

    Well-put. We’ve given in to natural inclinations that ought to be overcome –at least during class time. “Old school” teachers are doing kids a favor by wrenching their attention away from each other and their cell phones. This is especially true for the many children who find middle school society quite hellish.

    Comment by Ben F — June 18, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  17. JB, you make an excellent point. They caved into it. It is a similar situation with technology; schools have the attitude of “give the kids what they want.”

    No. Don’t give them what they want. Give them something they will appreciate having later. Not that the two always have to be opposed. But when they are, so be it.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 18, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

  18. Middle school is for the birds…this just proves that no one in education understands this bizarre concept which is beyond broken. Please bring back the K-8 schools…they are long over due…

    Comment by tim-10-ber — June 18, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

  19. The readers’ comments on the NYT piece are just deadly:

    “I have seen “No Bullying Days” in schools, it makes me think that bullying is encouraged on other days.”

    or

    “You must be kidding. These bonds are forged outside of the bounds of school and last a lifetime. They are a part of our emotional learning and are entirely necessary. Ever read Romeo and Juliet? See the result of adult interference?”

    Here is the parallax view from some other readers:

    “The article and commenters are mixing apples and oranges. In our modern, collaborative classrooms, students must get along with everyone in order to work together; i.e., to learn.”

    And this – kids not quite mature enough for friendship:

    “Just the other day I brought my 8 yo daughter and several of her friends on an all day outing. The interactions that I witnessed were quite an eye opener. I personally believe the concept of a “BFF” (best friend forever) is indulgent and can potentially set up children for social experiences that many are not mature enough to deal with.”

    Thanks Robert for posting the link to this, you made my day.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — June 20, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

  20. I’m quite comfortable with schools taking a hard line on bullying, but navigating the ups and downs of “best friends” is one of the hard life lessons children have to learn.

    That said, I think BFF is becoming a bit of a cult-y (and marketed – jewelry, T-shirts, diaries) thing in the tween girl crowd, and I think there’s some benefit adults making the point that you don’t *have* to have a BF and that the F=forever part is often an illusion.

    Comment by Rachel — June 22, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  21. b= best f=friends f=forever thats wat bfff means for me

    Comment by Helina — July 8, 2010 @ 3:43 am

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