Some primary schools in the U.K. recently espoused a “no best friends policy,” a move that mirrors practices described in a 2010 article of The New York Times: “A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding.” Both plans illustrate anxiety with the exclusivity that comes with best friendships and seek to discourage those tight bonds to avoid bullying, cliques, and the pain that can accompany friendship “breakups.” While I agree that educators should encourage children to work with different people and to practice respect and kindness, I think there are several problems with the elimination of the “best friend.” For one thing, forcing some children to socialize only in large groups will mean that those children don’t really socialize at all; this policy smacks of extroversion, and for children who are introverted or reserved, a close friend can be the sole comfort that makes large group interactions possible. Such a policy could prohibit introverted children from learning how to work with large groups, whereas a close friend could actually facilitate that process.
A Slate article titled “The Buddy System” speaks to this issue as particularly critical for middle-school boys, for whom a single close friend can ease any number of adolescent transitions. Of course, as any grown-up knows, friendships come and go, and the demise (especially of tight-knit bonds) can be incredibly painful at every age and stage of life. But prohibiting children from forming close friendships (if such a prohibition is even possible) doesn’t teach people how to practice—or dissolve—intimacy with compassion and love. Nor does it teach young people that principle of loving our neighbors, even when we like some of them significantly more than others. To me, it rings false to pretend that we relate to and like everyone the same amount; it seems natural to prefer the company of some over the company of others. The lesson within that natural tendency should not be exclusiveness or wholesale inclusion but recognition of different temperaments and gifts and a respect for each individual.
Of course, I come to this topic as an introvert, married to an introvert (who wonders how he found a spouse even more introverted than him) with a child who expresses definite introverted tendencies. I see my toddler’s intense attachment to a few people in her life, as well as her evident discomfort in crowds and large social groups. I need to teach her friendliness in a way that some parents don’t have to think about (their kids smile, apparently, without a ton of coaching), and I work on strategies to help her in contexts where there are a lot of people. If her father and I are any indication, she can learn to survive those contexts, but she won’t ever enjoy them or flourish in them. And most likely she will rely on a few key relationships in her life to help her navigate a social space that feels contrived, superficial, and cold. Institutional policies that require us all to serve as interchangeable parts miss the point that we are gifted differently to serve differently. That’s the body. Some members may thrive in the thick of the social scene, but for some of us, those “best friends” are the lifelines that equip us to mingle at all.