Thursday, June 17, 2010

If Any "Friendship Coach" Tries to Mess With my Daughters and Their Friends, I Swear I Will Kick Their Ass

It is, of course, pointless and silly to allow oneself to get worked up over another one the NYT's patented create-controversy-and-concern-out-of-a-no-doubt-minute-slice-of-upper-middle-class-New-York-life Style section articles, but I can't help myself: the bone-headedness expressed in this piece on "The End of the Best Friend" (hat tip: Aeon J. Skoble) just pissed me off to no end:

Most children naturally seek close friends. In a survey of nearly 3,000 Americans ages 8 to 24 conducted last year by Harris Interactive, 94 percent said they had at least one close friend. But the classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying....

As the calendar moves into summer, efforts to manage friendships don’t stop with the closing of school. In recent years Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y., has started employing “friendship coaches” to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else. If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know.

“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” said Jay Jacobs, the camp’s director. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”


This is, on so many levels, such complete nonsense. Can I find anything to salvage from the piece whatsoever? Oh sure, the concerns about the way really close friendship pairs can form the basis for exclusion and vindictiveness are grounded in reality. And as children grow out of adolescence and into their teen-age years and romantic and sexual feelings enter the picture, discouraging young people from devoting themselves too much, and too early, to exclusive one-on-one relationships is I think frankly wise. (This is one of the reasons Melissa and I keep tabs on who our oldest is hanging out with, and laid down the law about no dating before she turns 16.) But these concerns, as legitimate as they are, have nothing whatsoever to do with the heart of the article. It's central thesis is that there are people who apparently feel quite responsible and legitimated in disrupting and separating two kids who find in each other exactly the support-system, the source of humor and joy, the mutually constructed social identity, that many of us want and need. And this is not condemned by the article (though, to the author's credit, some countering voices are brought in, to make the point that "close childhood friendships not only increase a child’s self-esteem and confidence, but also help children develop the skills for healthy adult relationships--everything from empathy, the ability to listen and console, to the process of arguing and making up"). But that is too little, too late. What we are given, overall, is a portrait of supposedly smart people extending their anti-bullying campaigns into that presumably suspicious realm of childhood friends, and we are to accept this as just another development, for good or for ill, of contemporary life. Well, bullshit.

Again, I know it's crazy to get worked up over another stupid style piece from our paper of record. But please, people--if through some bizarre accident there are actually people who read and take seriously both this blog and the New York Times, I plead with you to cut out this article (or print it out) and then ritually burn it. I am not speaking from offended memory here: I didn't have a best friend growing up, and really don't think I wanted one. Lots of kids don't. But on the other hand, lots of kids do; they need their pairs, their fellows, their gang, their peeps. I can see it in a couple of my daughters. Our oldest has many good friends, but no great friends, and she likes it that way; she is, at heart, a reader and a bit of a loner. But our second oldest, by contrast, is a social creature, as well as a rather commanding one, the sort of girl who might be tempted to see her friends as extensions of herself. The fact that she has found someone (a girl her own age, in a neighborhood down the street, someone she got to know through school and Girl Scouts) with whom she is "best friends," someone she can and does do just about everything with (or everything age-appropriate, anyway), has been both a source of happiness and a blessing to her, stabilizing and maturing her, as she has learned to share with and respect another person, and receive the same in return. If some "friendship coach" at their elementary school tried to break them apart on the playground, in the name of, I don't know, "diversifying their portfolio of friendships," or some such garbage, I would not hold myself responsible for my actions. Neither should any caring parent, I think.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amen Brother Fox. Friendship consultants? What the???

bbell

madhousewife said...

That's messed up. Don't adults interfere with children's lives enough as it is? We really have to micromanage their social lives, too?

Camassia said...

This pushing towards everyone having big groups of friends sounds like more of what Alan Jacobs called the war on introverts. I suppose it is best suited to the herd environment of school, but that's exactly what depresses me.

William Polley said...

Thank you. I was hoping someone would give this the smackdown that it deserves. Thank you.

Latter-day Guy said...

You know, that article sounds like something I've heard before...

Anonymous said...

How the Times could confuse completely different things is beyond me. I swear they are getting stupider by the day there. Working in reverse, the camp piece. I was a camp counselor in an outstanding outdoor ed program for 10 summers. One of the things we had to be careful about was kids who came from the same town or were friends at home. The wouldn't get the full experience if they were together too much, so different chore groups, different tents (2 person tents) for the first part of the summer. We were also careful to mix new and returning campers, kids who were there for the science with kids who were there to hike and kids who were there for the freedom/creativity of the program. Parts of our staff manual dated back to the forties and fifties and talked about setting these things up from the get go. It's simply a group dynamics thing. As a teacher, I'm careful to make sure I don't led friends work together too much because they tend to fall into ruts, always dividing up responsibility the same way. When you keep mixing kids up, they are forced to stretch themselves and present themselves in new ways. This is a legitimate goal and it works. The notion of a friendship counselor is a little nuts, but what that person does, from the articles' description is pretty standard stuff and has been for thirty or forty years if not longer.

Western Dave

Russell Arben Fox said...

Dave, thanks for sharing that perspective. After I wrote this, I actually felt kind of embarrassed for having such an outraged reaction to the piece; as you note, what little the article actually mentions in terms of what these ill-named "friendship coaches" actually do is really "simply a group dynamics thing." And there are plenty of parallels to what teachers in the classroom do all the time. So why don't we just say that what I'm condemning is the ridiculous spin which the article puts on these efforts, suggesting that they amount to something that really would be truly atrocious: a concerted effort to disrupt, in the name of some boneheaded bit of pop psychology and liberal worry, the formation of best friends.

Anonymous said...

Russell,
Believe me, if this were a real trend instead of some made up bull, I would of heard of it by now, given that I work in the environment where this stuff is supposed to be completely pervasive - East Coast prep school.
Western Dave

Anonymous said...

Oh, well then! If teachers are trained to do it as a matter of course, it must be fine. What? Please don’t cop out now, just when we are establishing a connection with prevailing practice! “Group dynamics” really aren’t the sort of thing that can be managed (from above the subject in question, as it were) by a teacher armed only with a few clunky principles. That these kinds of principles—lecturing involves bad “passive learning,” break the class up into groups so everyone can be “active,” “keep mixing kids up [!]” to prevent ruts, and so on—are applied with little distinction from elementary school to ed school, not to mention in endless professional development workshops out in the real world and everywhere else education research has an influence, suggests that there is indeed something wrong here. It may seem that “it works,” but this is precisely because the real group dynamics that underlie these situations force people to play along as best they can, trying to say what they are supposed to say and either avoiding saying what they may really want to say or simply avoiding thinking altogether. If this is education, then, yes, these techniques work. But this is education designed to keep people on the surface of things. Almost invariably, in my considerable experience in these highly managed learning situations, a breakaway group discussion begins with people saying, either aloud or with their glances, “Okay, so what are we supposed to be discussing?” Then they try to quickly establish what they are supposed to be saying, and conversation gradually fizzles out from there. How the teachers/professors/facilitators running these classes can remain blind to the highly constricted group dynamics they are actually creating is a puzzle to me. No doubt, it has a lot to do with prevailing distortions in the understanding of what education is: namely, establishing learning objectives and then making sure that the students simply exhibit the right behaviors. But, at bottom for the individual teacher, these busy-busy breakaway-group techniques reflect an unwillingness to accept responsibility for truly guiding students through the intricacies of a subject that he or she is supposed to know well. To get to the point, if we can go along so easily agreeing that education and dialogue are things that can be managed by professional education and dialogue managers, then it is not such a stretch to start thinking that kids’ friendships need managing along similar principles, and it is not such an idle worry that teachers and parents could very well slip into this assumption, if they haven’t already. Precisely the issue is that it’s all become “simply a group dynamics thing.”

Milne said...

Spanking, no matter what the circumstances, is child abuse.

Denying your child a best friend (breaking htem up if need be) is sound child-rearing.

Got it.

SMSgt Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SMSgt Mac said...

Don't apologize. Your first instincts were correct. 'Jolly Jay' Jacobs, whose first love according to the camps' website is 'camping' and from all appearances he has been involved with his 'love' full time his whole adult life -- When actually he somehow found time to get a law degree during those years, and oh by the way, he's State Chairman of the Democratic Party. Happy camper indeed.

(The more obvious typos corrected version)

jmgregory said...

As more evidence on the BS of this article, Christine Laycob has weighed in:

I was quoted in an article on the cover of the Style Section of the New York Times on Thursday, June 17, 2010 entitled “A Best Friend? You Must be Kidding” by Hillary Stout. Ms. Stout used two unrelated quotes from my 30-minute discussion with her in February 2010 to come across as if I advocated against the concept of best friends in middle school and high school. The topic of best friends was not the focus of the interview; it was addressed as part of a general discussion about the different aspects of a middle school counselor’s duties.

During my interview, I told Ms. Stout there is nothing wrong with middle and high school students having best friends. To the contrary, strong bonds between best friends can last a lifetime. I do not discourage or intrude upon best friend relationships – I recommend to parents that they work with their children on how to avoid “toxic” or “overly possessive” best friendships, where, for example, a friend might say “You’re my best friend so you cannot be friends with anyone else but me!”

Parents often contact me when they are concerned their children lack a best friend. I reassure them that it is perfectly normal for students to have groups of friends and that the absence of a best friend is not a cause for concern. I do not think my role is to find best friends for students, nor is my role to break up such bonds amongst students. As a school counselor, I encourage students to engage in all such friendships that have a positive impact on their middle school years.

This describes my brief discussion with Ms. Stout relating to “best friends”. Please understand only a small portion of my comments were actually used in the article, and they were used by Ms. Stout specifically to create the slant and argument Ms. Stout desired.

Christine Laycob