Friends? Take a Number.

She lived across the street and our parents thought it was better for young girls to walk to school together. And that we did, every day for the next three years of our lives. We were inseparable. Then one day my family left Ukraine and it became harder to be close. We wrote on and off for years. Between all the moves, we lost and found each other multiple times. And even though a few years have passed since we talked, I will always cherish my first “real” friend.

Lately, as I’ve observed my own children navigate through the complicated web of relationships, I’ve reminisced about those early memories of friendship. I remember having a best friend and a couple other friends. I also recall that not all kids in my class were friends. Some of us didn’t even like each other and that was all right.

It took becoming a parent to understand why the word “friend” means something different to my kids. I’ve noticed that now from the time children enter elementary school, teachers and other adults refer to them as friends. Through the use of phrases such as “Friends, we are going to read a book now” and “This is not how we treat our friends” children are taught that the entire class is one big group of friends.

“We are all friends,” my youngest says.

“But I saw him hit you. Are you sure you guys are really friends?” I ask.

“Well….I don’t even like him,” he confesses, “He is mean to me.”

And it’s assumed that as kids get older and enter middle school, they will sort it out. With some basic guidance and phrases such as “You are changing. You might not have the same friends as you did last year.” everything is supposed to be resolved. All of a sudden you are expected to understand that not everyone is your friend. But it’s not that simple and the “friendship baggage” from elementary school can be carried into the preteen years. Recently, we had to explain to our son that just because he talks to a kid in the mornings and sometimes they say “hi”, does not mean that they are friends. Could it be that the term friend is tossed around too freely?

We tell our kids that everybody is their friend. But why do we do that when we know it isn’t true? We are not programmed to be friends with everyone and even from an early age there are kids that you like and that you don’t. I believe it is confusing to a child when a so-called friend exhibits non-friendly behavior. The vague definition of the word “friend” leaves kids with a different basis for what the word really means.

Perhaps it’s better to encourage children to be nice to each other without attaching the word friend to every relationship. Helping them understand that it’s natural not to be close with everyone is just as important as teaching them to feel positive about the friends they do have.

Or, perhaps, given that Facebook has further degraded the word to be randomly attributed to hundreds of people, we may want to re-think “friend” all together. Maybe it’s time to create a new word, one that our children might use for those special people they truly love spending time with.

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