Are best friendships unhealthy?

This last weekend I joined a friend for dinner over at the Union Hotel. I brought my kids with me, all of us dressed up nicely in anticipation for dinner. And when I greeted my friend, it was with a huge bear hug. When we pulled away, I was looking at the same face I had seen 12 years earlier, and one I hadn’t spent any quality time with for almost 20 years. But I had missed that face, and the friend that came along with it, and we settled into elaborate details of our lives as if no time had passed at all. Yes, it had been awhile. And yes, our in-person friendship had been brief. But it didn’t matter. Since 1st grade until the time she had moved away in 6th grade, this had been my best friend. And the bond from that friendship was strong enough to withstand time, marriage, divorce, college, jobs, life, children….everything that had happened to each one of us until we were finally able to meet up again.

As kids we had been inseparable. Almost every weekend I was spending the night over at her house as we watched marathons of the Muppets. We’d terrorize her little sister, annoy her big brother, run around in the field outside, and make use of every single inch of the house. At school we had crushes on the same boys, shared the same interests, kept each other’s secrets, and always ate lunch together. If we were lucky enough to share a class, the teacher was sure to keep our desks far away from each other.

Of course, having a best friend had a couple drawbacks. First off, I admit I experienced a little jealousy. I actually wanted this girl as my friend, and my friend only. Unfortunately, my friend was a very likeable girl, so she had several good friends. And these friends weren’t always fond of me. So sometimes my best friend would be hanging out with her other friends, and I would be left on my own. That was the other problem. Because this girl was my best friend, I didn’t take the time to make other good friends. Sure, there were kids that I was friendly with. And from time to time I would play with them. But I wasn’t close enough to anyone else to be able to go to his or her house or share secrets with them. When my best friend moved away, I naturally went through a little bit of an identity crisis and had to rediscover who I was.

These drawbacks are the very reason that many experts of today are recommending that “best friends” during childhood should be discouraged. “I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend.” Jye Jacobs (a camp counselor) told the NY Times in a recent article. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.” At the camp he is at, measures are taken if two friends appear to gravitate towards each other a little too much. They are placed on separate sports teams, seated away from each other at meal times, or a counselor will invite them to participate in an activity with another child they may not have gotten to know yet. The other concern regarding best friends revolves around cliques and bullying. Just the hint of exclusivity creates a fear that some kids will be excluded, while others are being forced to not be friends with other kids.

But this recent turning away from having a best friend has other experts worried, wondering if children will now be denied the strong emotional support that comes with having one really close friend. They argue that close childhood friends increases a child’s self-esteem, and also allows them to develop relational skills that they will use into adulthood. That hurt they might go through over friends? The jealousy over their friend’s time, or letting go of possible possessiveness? All of these feelings and experiences are ones they will be having in their adult years. So doesn’t it make sense that they should be able to learn how to work through them in their childhood years?

So is it better to discourage one best friend in favor of many good friends? Or is it ok for children to claim one friend as their closest friend?

For my friend and me, we were meeting this last Sunday for a very special reason. Her father, the man whose house I used to frequent almost every weekend and who had been so kind and patient in letting us overtake his house, had recently passed away. His funeral service had been in the morning, bringing her from the busy city of LA back to her hometown of Santa Rosa. It was only fitting that we were meeting up again for the first time in years at a dinner meant to honor her father. We looked over old pictures from back in the day when she was the freckle faced kid I once knew. And we laughed over some of the photos that she had discovered of the two of us, ones my kids were now giggling over. A tear or two was shed over his recent passing, but mostly the evening was spent in laughter and great memories. We were reminded of the past that each one of us carried for each other. And in that dinner, we rediscovered that bond of friendship as if no time had passed at all.

So am I against best friends? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t give that friendship up for anything. And I hope my kids are fortunate enough to also grow up with at least one friendship that withstands the length of time.

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3 thoughts on “Are best friendships unhealthy?”

  1. I agree that childhood is the time to teach children how to deal with jealousy and loss, which is natural to happen when you have a close relationship with another person. I also think that children should be pushed to find friendship with more than one person, because it can be unhealthy to devote all of their time to that one friend. It is possible to have a best friend who you share everything with, and also have other friends whose company you enjoy. Kids’ friendships should always be monitored by their parents, for many reasons, who can ensure that kids are spending time with more than just one best friend.

  2. My two cents, good friends are hard to find. The small handful I have from childhood will remain friends forever. Sure we changed who was our best friend- but we all got in trouble together so teachers never really could separate us. 🙂

  3. The idea of discouraging children from having ‘best friends’ is, IMHO, absolutely ridiculous. There are some people that, from an early age, you just click with. Or from a later age. Or at whatever point you meet. This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t or won’t have other friends, or that the final ‘F’ in BFF will hold true…but the fact that pretty much every girl every where has a best friend or two from the time that they begin socializing would imply that having a closest companion is a normal, natural and healthy thing…probably important for proper social development or something.

    I feel that this practice of separating potential besties has strong parallels to the past sinister-aversion based discouragement of left-hand dominant children to use their natural strong-side. Having a best friend or two is GOOD. And in agreement with Shawn, good friends are hard to find. When you meet someone you click with, that understands and/or compliments your own crazy, that’s a person to hang on to.

    That camp counselor is probably just bitter because he was annoying and never had a best friend, himself.

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