There is a story that is making the rounds on the internet about an elementary school policy that is being interpreted to mean that students are no longer allowed to have a “best friend.” The policy has been quite polarizing on the internet, as you would expect.
The headline is more extreme than the actual policy, which focuses on inclusion so that no one feels ostracized from their peers. This type of no-best-friend inclusion policy has been adopted all over the UK most famously at Thomas’s Battersea, the school Prince George attends in England — but it is also spreading to parts of Canada and the United States. Under this policy, if your child is having a party for their birthday, for example, and they want to hand out the invitations in school, all students in the class must be invited so that no one feels rejected or left out. It might also mean that when kids are on the playground at recess, they can’t exclude classmates from their games.
As someone who has had a best friend for most of her life, and who has also been bullied, it is easy to see both the positive and negative effects that this kind of policy could have on young children. Young children do most of their socializing in school, so being able to create and maintain friendships is crucial. We know that.
We also know that exclusion can have a real and lasting impact on kids. I grew up as an only child, and my son is currently an only child. Making friends was challenging for him until he started school. He was often ostracized by the children on the local playground, for reasons unknown by both of us. It broke my heart every time I would see the other children shun him or tell him that he couldn’t join their games.
So this policy is beneficial for a kid like mine who has a hard time fitting in or asserting themselves. It takes the focus off playing with the same kids all the time and encourages children to look outside of their comfort zones and get to know more of their peers.
“There is sound judgment behind it. You can get very possessive friendships, and it is much easier if they share friendships and have a wide range of good friends rather than obsessing too much about who their best friend is,” said Ben Thomas, headmaster of Thomas’s Battersea, in the The Telegraph.
Amen to that. Children often do get possessive of their friends, and they also lack the emotional development to be able to distance themselves from the situation and create appropriate boundaries. Tensions or conflicts can also be exacerbated when small cliques exist, because typically someone will be the target of the animosity, and that person can be pushed out. Without another outlet for this child to plug into, no other friends to confide in and spend time with, the conflict becomes bigger, more hurtful, and harder to bounce back from.
“We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends,” Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis said in an interview with the New York Times back in 2010. And yes, big groups of friends and not focusing on one person as your sole source of friendship is very useful on a day-to-day basis, especially in a school setting.
The policy would definitely alleviate stress in the classroom when it comes to things like pairing up for reading or other group projects, and encouraging kids to expand their social horizons could lead to a more diverse (racially, socioeconomically, etc.) group of friends, which we know is so necessary.
But let’s not get too Pollyanna about this policy though, because while it sounds great in theory, in practice, there can be downsides as well.
For instance, what happens if an inclusion policy requires a child to be friendly with someone who is bullying them? I was bullied by the same girl from first to fifth grade, and we were often in the same class. I so desperately tried to be her friend and be nice to her, and still, she would torment me and make my friends choose between us. Would I have been required to play with her under this policy?
And let’s not forget that even the nicest kids can be assholes sometimes, and just because a child is nice to adults doesn’t mean they behave the same way with their peers. Teachers can’t have their eyes on every kid every second of the day, and we need to empower children to trust their gut instincts and advocate for themselves when they aren’t being treated kindly. Teaching children how to exit toxic relationships and advocate for themselves when they aren’t treated kindly or respectfully is an invaluable life skill — and one that many of us learn far too late in life. And if we adults have a hard time separating ourselves from unhealthy friendships, how can we expect children to know how to do so, especially when they’re being told that they must play with everyone?
Being told that they can’t have one close friend may cause them to retreat further inward during tough times. When I was being bullied, I was grateful to have my close friends to lean on. If a child doesn’t have at least one close friend to be a support system when something bad is happening to them, then we are doing children a great disservice.
If we’re going to be putting these policies into practice, we should be sure to give children the tools to recognize when something isn’t right. Including everyone isn’t worth much if it means that we are robbing children of their autonomy.
Prohibiting school-age children from having close friends might also hinder the skills they need to make these kinds of friendships as they get older. “Being the popular kid is ‘cool’ in high school, but by 25, it doesn’t set you apart and make you a leader in the same way,” said Rachel Narr, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Virginia in an interview with New York Magazine about a study she was lead on recently published in the journal Child Development.
As adults, we often talk about the benefits of having a small circle of friends versus the stress of maintaining larger groups of superficial friendships. More often than not, those close friends that we maintain well into adulthood come during our most formative years. (I’m still close friends with the same two women I met when I was 3 years old.)
It is vitally important to teach kids inclusion because, yes, being ostracized from your peers is damaging, especially in the age of social media. I don’t think anyone is denying that. But taking away a child’s option to make their own decisions about who they want to be close to can also be problematic and infringe on their autonomy.
Ultimately, these policies need to use discretion without drawing hard lines. Bullying should never be tolerated. Inclusion, kindness, and respect should be modeled and encouraged across the board, but allowing kids to establish and maintain their own friendships on their own terms is also a critical life skill that can’t be overlooked or underestimated.