Preventing close friendships among children would do more harm than good.
The main purpose in having an educational system is to prepare children for the future. From the simplest of tasks learning the days of the week, to tying shoes, and keeping one’s hands to oneself, children are taught how to function in the “real world.” Besides learning about math and reading, kids are taught how to handle social situations from a young age, so that by the time those skills need to be tested, they have strategies and coping mechanisms to help guide their interactions with peers, bosses, and the rest of the world.
A recent article was published in U.S. News explaining how some schools have chosen to introduce a ban on children having a best friend in the classroom. Instead, they are encouraging total inclusion, and reassure students that participating in larger groups is more important than forming a stronger bond with a singular student. The reasoning behind this idea all comes down to the idea that a child can be traumatized from feeling alienated by a classmate. I know that it can be very difficult to have a “best friend” not speak to you, which I assume is the reason they want to eliminate that situation. But the problems with this thinking are many.
Firstly, this seems unrealistic because kids will always gravitate towards certain individuals over others — as that is human nature — so while the classification is removed, the feelings and actions are not. Even as an adult, there are just some people I do not get along with. Was I forced to work with them in group projects or interact with them in various settings? Yes. Was I forced to be friends with them instead of with my actual friends because it would have supposedly benefited me as a person? No. I was able to learn how to interact with people who do not mesh well with me because of lessons taught in school, which are much more practical than pretending to be close to someone to prevent exclusion.
Another issue with this “preventing exclusion and hurt feelings” is that all individuals will feel this at some point. So why are we shying away from discussing it and not teaching children to cope with it until they are older? We don’t delay teaching manners, and if parents do it is very easy to pick those kids out in your college classes — so why delay other important skills? When I had issues with my friends in elementary school, or felt that I was being left out, I was told how to approach the situation and how to communicate my feelings. This small scale lesson prevented issues from evolving and having to learn these skills later in life. By the time I had issues with friends in college, I had a decade or so of practice under my belt and was able to appropriately handle situations. Not allowing kids to experience real life emotions and situations in a controlled, teachable environment, robs them of important milestones and lessons to be learned.
“When a child has a close group of friends that encourage a sense of commitment, they have been shown to have a higher self-esteem as well as a better academic standing.”
Along with teaching kids how to cope with real feelings, we should be encouraging inclusion in sustainable ways. I was always told from a young age to include people. If I were eating lunch with my best friend, and saw another kid by themselves, I was not incapable of asking them to join us. Children should be taught how to be a decent human being with empathy, without being restricted from engaging in healthy relationships with others. Having a best friend does not mean one cannot still have social skills, which is why it does not make sense to blame exclusion on the very natural process.
While this line of thinking believes that the best way to combat loneliness and social anxiety is to make everyone have expansive social circles instead of a smaller, more intimate group of friends, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Cynthia Erdley, a psychology professor at the University of Maine, found in a study that having at least one quality friend with the overall feeling of being well liked is more beneficial for children than being seen as “popular” with a wide circle of friends. Having a strong connection with a smaller group gives kids a sense of belonging in a group instead of just being one of many in a more shallow relationship.
The concept of being “popular” as outlined by the study conducted by Professor Erdley was seen as more harmful to the sense of self-worth of a child, because they are often associated with negative perceptions, such as being a gossip or rude, to stay in a position of popularity. When a child has a close group of friends that encourage a sense of commitment, they have been shown to have a higher self-esteem as well as a better academic standing. In theory, if a child is worried about his or her friends planning something without them because of how large the group is, they will waste school time focused on social issues instead of learning. When a child is reassured that their “best friends” are invested in their connection, they will dedicate more of their energy to school related topics.
Banning a word will not prevent the feelings associated with or the actions included in it. Children will still gravitate towards particular individuals over others and some kids will still be mean and leave someone out. Encouraging children to include others should not threaten stronger bonds from being formed, which will without a doubt cause issues later in life when it comes to interacting with others as well as forming relationships. Schools need to teach children how to thrive once they leave the classroom, and by preventing them from learning skills they need they are only hurting those they were designed to help.
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