In their latest stand against bullying, schools across the country are unwittingly giving their students a lesson right out of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.
Schools in states such as Missouri and New York are trying to eliminate bullying through an unlikely method: They are discouraging students from having best friends.
It might seem that students being bullied and students having best friends are separate issues, but so-called educators see otherwise. The New York Times reports that “the classic best-friend bond … signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.”
What emerges is a push for students to be friends with … everyone. “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends,” Christine Laycob, a day-school counselor in St. Louis, tells the Times. Parents in Pennsylvania and Georgia echo this sentiment, and camp counselors in New York take it to its extreme. They employ “‘friendship coaches’ to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else,” the Times reported in words that seem like an excerpt from 1984 or Brave New World.
Although I disapprove of such thinking, I can understand why schools, and others who work with children, would do this. Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant and South Hadley High School student, committed suicide in January after suffering repeated bullying from a clique at school. She was 15 years old. More recently, the Boston Globe detailed the heartbreaking story of Lexi, a high school freshman who endured bullying … in part from former friends. The Globe cited a Bridgewater State College think-tank that described targeting ex-friends as one example of what “a textbook case of bullying by girls” would look like.
Nevertheless, I’m worried that schools are on the wrong path here. I’m concerned that they underestimate the richness of close friendships for students. Friendships create positive moments for students in and out of school. They instill feelings of value, fun, and trust. I count with pride the friends from middle and high school that I keep in touch with about two decades later (one of whom mentioned the Times story to me). I’m not against schools encouraging students to branch out in their friendships … but I also believe that confidants aren’t common, that finding the few people who can fulfill that role takes time, and that schools are giving students the easy way out by banning BFFs.
If bullying represents students at their worst, friendships represent them at their best. (A student sitting with a friend might also offer a less inviting target to a bully.) By forming close bonds with a friend we learn the hard but rewarding experience of what it means to care about someone else. Schools should separate this from their antibullying efforts. If they continue their misguided policy, the end result will be a social superficiality in which bullying may disappear, but at a cost of students missing out on more profound lessons of life.