My toddler has recently discovered the idea of “best friends.” I’m pretty sure he learned it from Thomas the Tank Engine, as I first noticed him referring to Thomas as “Percy’s best friend” and vice versa when narrating his own play. The Thomas videos and books he knows use this description for the two engines. He then expanded this concept to other toys, talking about “Gordon’s best friend James,” and telling me that “Marshall is Chase’s best friend, Mommy!” When he referred baby brother R as “my best friend,” my heart melted.
As cute as it is, it gets me thinking about why, as parents and adults generally, we encourage the idea of “best friends” so strongly in our kids. I’ve heard many parents reinforcing this to their children, when they refer to a child’s buddy as their “best little friend.” I always seem to hear a particular stress on the word “best,” and a particular tone of gravitas, paired with a loving smile – our kids can be in no doubt that a “best friendship” is a special treasure, to be cherished and held in high esteem.
I’m not disputing that close friendships are precious. The one I always called my “best friend” growing up is still one of my dearest friends to this day; I love her fiercely and would do anything for her. She is hands down one of the best people I know. If I ever describe someone offhandedly as my best friend, it’s probably her. I couldn’t be more grateful to have her in my life and in my corner.
However, there have also been many instances when I’ve seen the idea of “best friends” cause more pain than good:
- When knowing that I was somebody’s best friend was the main source of my own self-esteem, and so my self-worth was in another’s hands (thankfully, in my case, the kindest hands).
- Whenever there was an odd number of girls in my grade in elementary school – it was an incredibly small school – and we paired off; you bet your bottom dollar we all knew which girl didn’t have a best friend.
- When I went to high school, and my long-time bestie wasn’t in any of my classes – it was agony watching from afar as she bonded with peers I didn’t know… I remember this transition being physically painful.
As a young adult, I saw my much younger siblings go through these sorts of transitions, too. I wanted to console them with my hard-earned wisdom that once you grew up, the actual title of a “best” friend didn’t mean so much, because one could have all sorts of friends, many of them fiercely dear, and each of them ‘best’ for different parts of life. Despite knowing this, and remembering that intensity and anguish, I still tell my almost-one-year-old that he and my friend’s son are “besties for life, and they don’t even know it yet.” It’s too cute not to conceive of them as kindred spirits.
So why do we push the idea of “best friends” so eagerly and happily with little kids? Is it practice for romantic monogamy? (Honestly, the intensity of best friendships and the jealousy and possessiveness that can ensue amongst adolescent girls is eerily similar…) Is it that we want so much for our kids to share and be kind that we nurture the idea of holding another person on a sort of pedestal and putting their needs above your own? Is it that we wish so dearly for our kids to receive unconditional love (the kind we’ve had for them since birth) that we latch onto its earliest semblance and encourage it in their earliest relationships? Is it that we are so terrified of the process of letting go and eventually leaving our kids forever that when they first attach to a peer at daycare or school, we relievedly say with a big smile, “Oh, is so-and-so your best friend? That’s wonderful.”
Maybe our childhood cultural fascination with best friends is also a symptom of our human tendency to categorize, rank, and judge everything. We like to know and proclaim which things are our “favourite” or which we have deemed “the best.” But one problem with doing this with people is that ranking someone as “first” means you have to rank everyone else as “lesser.”
In this way, we treat friendship, admiration, esteem and love as finite resources, and model this for our children; liking this person most means you don’t have as much liking to give to that person. Being best friends with person A means you can’t get to as deep a level of friendship with B, because that would threaten person A’s position. That could be a cozy, reassuring place to be for our kids if they are someone’s “best,” but when they are (inevitably) on the less desirable side of the line, this thinking also might teach them that their dear friend’s increase in friendship with someone else means there must be less for them. What is left for young minds and hearts to conclude but that they are no longer as worthy of that person’s highest affections?
I’d like to avoid teaching this kind of thinking with my kids when it comes to love, friendship, and admiration. I’d like to teach them what I’ve found to be much more fulfilling as an adult: to form each relationship in my life on its own merits, without worrying about how highly I “rank” in their network of friends. As my oldest is just starting to get to the point where he can start developing those early friendships with peers, it’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind.