I was concerned when I read in the New York Times that some schools and camps are discouraging kids from having best friends as a way to keep them from being exclusive and hurting each other's feelings. Having worked as an editor with Mary Pipher on Reviving Ophelia and with Rachel Simmons on Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl, I am aware of how cruel kids can be and how hard it is to negotiate the complexities of the social environment. Schools and camps are right to be vigilant about bullying and cruelty in all its forms, but kids also need to experience the ups and downs of powerful relationships, even if sometimes they are painful. Banning close friendships, which are part of growing up, may be more dangerous than it seems. We all need to experience the full range of emotions and passions in order to grow our souls.
It is almost impossible to watch children fighting and hurting each other's feelings. Even worse is when they gang up. Our instinct is to intercede, settle the conflict and send them out to play. Not so fast. It's impossible to stamp out conflict, and I think it is not such a good idea, anyway. Of course we try to set limits, so that they don't harm each other, physically or emotionally, but those are the boundaries, not the playing field.
I think that conflict serves many purposes. At home, brothers and sisters teach each other important lessons about handling their feelings, and getting used to the fact that life isn't always fair. Living in an emotional bubble, free of conflict, hurt, and tears, doesn't help us grow up.
We are born with a range of powerful emotions, which over time we experience, process, and manage. Educating our emotions and managing our passions is as much a part of growing up as learning to walk. Parents know that toddlers trying to walk need to fall down time after time. It's the only way they'll learn. In the same way, brothers and sisters first build their skills in dealing with conflict when they settle their arguments themselves. Home is the staging site for life. But this education continues in school.
If we keep our kid's relationships nice and clean, they will stay on the surface. If we insist on only surface relationships in school and camp, where are kids going to learn to deal with their strong feelings? Where will they develop an inner life? How will they manage the complexity of intimate relationships? We have to experience this all, over and over again. You can't walk without falling, and you can't be close without sometimes hurting.
Banning best friends might seem like a good way to keep kids from being exclusive and hurting each other's feelings. But that first love for another child is a building block of intimacy. Can we afford to eliminate it?
Jane Isay is the author of many books, including Secrets and Lies (Doubleday).