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My mother always told me I'd be lucky if I went through life keeping the same best friend. I used to scoff at her, thinking this was one of her usual negative spins on friendships.
And you know, I thought I would never admit it, but she was right.
There was one gal I was friends with from elementary school through the end of middle school. I guess I called her my "best friend" because she was pretty much the only person my age I saw constantly. Then I moved from the suburbs into the city of Buffalo and that was that. I made an effort to keep in touch with her, but it was not reciprocated. I moved on. I found another "best friend" in high school, but that relationship soon faded away as we went our separate ways in college and beyond.
So now, my 10-year-old daughter has a "best friend."
The term "best friend" makes me cringe, because I now know it sets kids up for disappointment at a young age. Kids her age don't realize their actions can be insensitive when they are learning about how to interact and be with other people.
We've had conversations about what it means to have a best friend and how that term could potentially be exclusive to other people who want to be her friend. My daughter goes to a school where emphasis is put on inclusion. It is truly an amazing place to be because apparent differences are celebrated and supported. In fact, parents are encouraged to set up play dates with every kid in their child's class, even those kids with whom their child wouldn't think twice about hanging out. The rationale for this is that often the walls of ignorance about the other person come tumbling down as they get to know each other in a different environment.
I’m writing about this because our family went camping recently with a bunch of families from my daughter's school. Her best friend — I will call her Melody — came along. Another girl from their class — let's call her Frankie — came as well, and she is not someone my daughter knows well.
Frankie and Melody are in fifth grade, whereas my daughter is in fourth grade. The fourth and fifth graders at the school share a class together — I love this combination because the younger kids get to learn from their older counterparts, and they in turn get to be role models for the younger ones the following year.
So, the fifth graders were graduating from elementary school this year. And that was a big deal — they were taking a step away from their comfort zone, everything they've known for six years, and going on to middle school, a new environment with new people, teachers and routines.
So, of course, it is natural that these two girls, Frankie and Melody, who have known each other since kindergarten, would bond during these last few weeks of school.
While we were on this camping trip, Melody and Frankie were tight buddies and pretty much never left each other's side. I did my best to hang back and observe what was going on, and I often wondered how my daughter was feeling. I tried very hard not to let my own feelings get the better of me, but it was so difficult, because I was perceiving this insidious but subtle exclusion happening.
My daughter is quite tight-lipped when it comes to verbalizing her feelings or showing any negative emotion. Reading is her escape from a tiring day or anything too emotional. Otherwise, her frustration or sadness manifests in negative ways, such as tormenting her little brother or being mouthy to me. Her little brother, on the other hand, won't hesitate to come to me and say, “Mom, my feelings were hurt when...”
So, I've got this ultra-private girl and I'm witnessing something that might be quite painful for her. I know that she and Melody had been working on their friendship and emailing about the whole "feeling left out" dynamic at school. I have an inkling that the two of them are aware of how the other is feeling.
It's definitely painful for me. And I have to mentally insert in my little mantra, "Don't project, don't project!" to prevent from flinging myself into the situation to try and make it all better. As a child, I had the experience of being excluded. So my hyper-sensitive antennae are always out because of that conditioning. (Why do you think I became a psychology major in college?)
While this form of exclusion I am talking about is not what I would call outright "bullying," I call it the "yo-yo" treatment. One day you are best friends and the next day you're off with someone else. And that can be just as bad as bullying.
I think back to my middle-school years when I was bullied by a next-door neighbor. She would taunt me at the bus stop. I don't remember ever telling my mother, but I did tell my oldest brother, who had a simple solution: Punch her in the mouth. I am almost embarrassed to say that I followed his advice and ended up lightly swatting her mouth, full of braces, with my mittens. And, to my surprise, she never bothered me again.
I feel torn: I could let my kid figure it out for herself or, in this instance, I could step in and defuse a potentially explosive situation.
In a perfect world, I'd love for her to be assertive about her needs and either go to Melody and say, "I'd love to go for a hike with you and Frankie," or come to me and say, "Mom, I feel excluded/left out/ignored. What should I do?" How much easier my job would be . . .
The only time I got involved during that camping trip was when I saw Melody and Frankie heading up the trail for a short hike together. I called out to them, “Hey, I bet my daughter would love to go on that hike with you.” And one of them responded, “Oh, we asked her but she didn’t want to go.”
Fair enough. But then when I casually mentioned that to my daughter, she bristled and said, “That’s not true! They never asked me!” Classic “he said/she said.”
So I'm questioning my role and the role of any parent who witnesses anything like this situation. I'm reminded of "bystander innocence" from my psychology classes — standing by and feigning ignorance to something that is happening because maybe, hopefully, someone else will step up.
If parents are more involved, would kids be more likely to be compassionate and less likely to be exclusive? And should I have been more proactive and had a talk with the girls' parents to share my observations and feelings?
What would you have done?
Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.