It’s hard to avoid, especially when you are a child. You read about it, hear others talk about theirs, and are prompted to write, talk and answer questions about it. What is the subject of this insidious obsession? A best friend. Doesn’t everyone have one? Don’t get me wrong, I think best friends are wonderful. What I have difficulty with is the emphasis expressed to children about the need for one. The question, “Who is your best friend?” assumes that the child has one very special friend. Writing about what you like to do with your best friend is easy – if you actually have one. If you don’t, then the perception can be that something is lacking and you should try to obtain a best friend as soon as possible.
There are many wonderful children’s books describing the shared adventures of best friends. As a child I had the impression that everyone was supposed to have a best friend and if you didn’t, something was wrong with you. I felt the pressure to latch on to somebody so that I could have a ready answer when asked who my best friend was. Having a “best friend” was my goal, and I wasn’t particularly discerning in my selections.
In kindergarten, my best friend was Mike because he and I shared the same birthday and he gave me some pennies one time. In first grade, my best friend was Darryl, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who held my hand under the table during music class and showed me how his eyes crossed when he took his glasses off. I thought that was so cool! After first grade Darryl’s family moved away so I had to find a new best friend and some other lucky person got to see Darryl’s crossed eyes.
There was an unspoken pressure to find a best friend replacement whenever the previous relationship cooled for any reason. By late elementary school, everyone understood that if you had a best friend you would have a seat saved for you even if you and your best buddy weren’t next to each other in line. There would be a spot reserved for you as your best friend placed a hand on the chair beside her and informed any would-be interlopers that the seat was saved. Before the teacher finished saying “Find a partner” for an activity, you and your best friend already knew you would pair up together. No one else even bothered asking you to be a partner since everyone understood that you would be with your best friend. You and your number one pal never had to wonder who you would eat lunch with or talk to at recess. Having a best friend was a relational social security that offered the assurance you would always have someone around.
For a child who struggles socially, making any friends let alone a best friend can be difficult. It’s complicated, because most of us have no idea how to teach our kids social skills that come naturally for most people. When you see your child try unsuccessfully to join a group or make a new friend, it is heartbreaking. How much should you try and intervene? You can’t make friends for your child, but sometimes your child doesn’t seem to be able to make a new friend by herself. Unless you’ve held a lonely child in your arms, knowing how badly he wants to have a friend but isn’t experiencing successful relationships it is hard to understand just how devastating it can be for that child and his parent. I’m afraid that some of that need for social security through having a best friend can follow us into adulthood. For example, my daughter got to know a girl in our homeschool support group and the two of them really hit it off. They had a lot in common and enjoyed being with each other. The new friend’s mother had been college roommates with another homeschool mom in the group, and those two mothers had already decided that their daughters would be best friends. My daughter watched as the other two girls were shuttled to each other’s houses for play dates and signed up for classes together at the local parks and recreation programs without a backward glance. These moms were not being deliberately unkind or exclusive. They were trying to give their daughters the kind of social security they had valued when they were growing up. There were quite a few moms in my homeschool support group who would not sign their children up for sports or other group activities unless their child’s best friend would be in the same group. The child with a best friend does not have to make an effort to include another child, because socially they are set. The child without a buddy in the group is more motivated to find another child who is at loose ends socially.
I tried to teach my children to look around and notice who might need a friend, and make an effort to include them. I was no doubt more sensitive to this than most, because I was a mother of one of the socially isolated children. Can you imagine the depth of sadness a parent feels when they are the only friend their child has? Truly, a good friend is an incredible blessing.
I get to know quite a few moms during my speaking engagements and my speech therapy practice. I’ve met some incredible women who agonize over their children’s lack of good relationships. Some children act in atypical ways because of their challenges such as autism or attention deficit disorder. Their moms work hard to teach them social skills, but their children continue to struggle and after awhile they are no longer invited to group social events because they are “different” and their behaviors make others uncomfortable. Now, in addition to isolated children there are increasingly isolated mothers.
As much as I’d like to believe it is the rare exception when an adult loses friendships because of her child, I know from personal experience that it happens frequently. Moms of special needs children need extra support, but often end up with less support because of their child’s differences that set him apart in a negative way. It’s a cycle that deserves to be interrupted.
This whole “best friend” situation can perpetuate the exclusion of those without one particular best friend. Maybe we could teach our children that even if they have a best friend they can still be friends with others and include them. Adults, even if your social needs are adequately met, I can guarantee you that there is someone in your life who longs to experience even a little of the camaraderie you share with your best friends. You and your child may not feel the need to add another friend to your life, but please look around anyway because someone undoubtedly needs your friendship. Can you share your social security with someone in need? If so, you just might change their lives – and teach your child how to love like Christ does along the way.