Best Friend Ban

Today I had the misfortune of reading Dr. Greenberg’s impoverished defense of prohibiting students from declaring a best friend.

That’s a bit harsh. Dr. Greenberg does well by demonstrating the issue with the current vernacular and suggesting a minimal change to improve the situation. Unfortunately she spends the majority of the article subverting herself through contradictions and side tracking to attack the concept of exclusion and hierarchies.

The Good

I surmised Dr. Greenberg’s real argument from two parts in the article.

…child after child comes to my therapy office distressed when their best friend has now given someone else this coveted title.

Among children and even teens, best friends shift rapidly. These shifts lead to emotional distress and would be significantly less likely if our kids spoke of close or even good friends rather than best friends.

These seem evidently true to me, and since she is speaking from experience I’ll grant her these assumptions for the sake of argument. The issue is that children and teens will change best friends, and this change causes emotional distress. She suggests a solution, which is to encourage children and teens to speak in terms of “close or even good friends rather than best friends.”

I believe this to be a reasonable solution. “Good friends” is an ambiguously ordered set; it might reduce emotional distress by allowing slight changes in relative position manifest without a subsequent change in title.

Now let’s review the garbage that this reasonable suggestion was buried in.

The Bad

Many of you will suggest that our kids should toughen up and will become hardier if they learn to deal with the natural shifts in friendships that are inevitable.

Children need to grapple with challenging social problems to develop into competent adults later in life. These skills are not innate, and it is a good idea to practice them while you’re young and the consequences are small. Dr. Greenberg  agrees that these shifts in friendship are inevitable when she talks about the rapid shifts in friendship that children and teens go through. I believe that it is foolish to try and protect your children from the inevitable. Instead it is better to prepare them to deal with the challenges they will have to face.

I am concerned about the bigger picture, which includes the pain associated with exclusion and the gentle comfort associated with inclusion.

Dr. Greenberg criticizes exclusionary categories and later the idea of hierarchies a few times in her article. Something I found both unnecessary to her point and, ironically, undermines her own potential solution.

Diagram of Friendship

The point of this crude diagram is to illustrate that by converting “Best Friend” into “Good Friends” the number of people that feel excluded from the category increases. In addition the bar for “Good Friend” is lower than the the bar for “Best Friend” so the magnitude of the rejection increases.

tl:dr; it doesn’t prevent exclusion; it might backfire.

The phrase best friend is inherently exclusionary…And, if kids have best friends, does that also imply that they have “worst friends?” A focus on having best friends certainly indicates there’s an unspoken ranking system; and where there is a ranking system, there are problems.

Virtually every word is exclusionary because it stands for what it means and not for other things. “Doctor” is an exclusionary word. It implies that some people are not doctors and therefore should be extremely reticent about proffering medical advice (and likewise for others taking it).

Again, her solution of using “Good Friends” is subject to the exact same criticism she levies against “Best Friend.” Having “Good Friends” is implies that there are friends that are not as good. Having friends at all means there are people that are not your friends. I doubt even Dr. Greenberg would claim that people should not have friends just because the vernacular is exclusionary.

Dr. Greenberg also rallies against hierarchies. It is fair to say that hierarchies have problems, and certainly add stress to those residing at the bottom. However, hierarchies are extremely useful social constructs and a fact of our social landscape. It seems dangerously counter productive to have children learn to live in an illusory social landscape.

Lastly, by substituting the word “friend” with the word “doctor” the silliness of this line of thinking becomes obvious.

The phrase doctor is inherently exclusionary. If there are top doctors, does that also imply there are worse doctors? When you’re ill, a focus on finding the best doctor certainly indicates there’s an unspoken ranking system; and where there is a ranking system, there are problems.

The word “best” encourages judgment and promotes exclusion.

So does the word “good” as they are born from the same concept. Again, the proposed solution is equally injured by the same logic.

Our lives are richer if we are closer with a few others rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket, right? This is true for children and adults. Think of all the wonderful opportunities you may have missed if you socialized exclusively with only one friend.

Sounds alright enough until you remember that the majority of adults do pair bond with a single person, with exclusive sexual congress as part of the deal. This behavior is so common across cultures that most countries have laws that grant the pair special privileges.

It also makes the false assumption that if you have a “best friend” you socialize exclusively with them. That’s as ridiculous as having a favorite band and someone assuming that you listen to only a single band’s songs.

Dr. Greenberg has a good point, but it’s buried by a low key resentment that categories exclude and that hierarchies are a feature of the social landscape. Ironically these additions only seek to undermine her proposed solution.

The Ugly

After writing this article I took a look at the sidebar and noticed the recommended links.

US News Health Section Recommended Links

I probably wasted my time on getting upset at a meme-tier website. Exploring some of the author’s other works she seems to talk about subjects with more obvious scholastic merit than “Why You Should Stop Drinking Hand Sanitizer.” That said her articles do seem a bit shallow. For example, her article 5 Ways Parents of Transgender Teens Can Help Their Children has only one non generic tip and it is the shortest tip.

Keep in mind that teens are more than their gender identity. Let your children know that they are not simply defined by their gender identity. 

Personal Take

Dr. Greenberg presents a reasonable solution, requiring a small vernacular change that has the potential to reduce emotional distress among children and teens. However, an experiment should be run because her change might have the opposite intended effect for the reasons stated above. In addition, I’m not sure how a school would enforce not having “best friends.” It seems to me that the school would have to resort to authoritarian and privacy invading tactics to effectively enforce such a rule. These tactics might cause more distress than not being someone’s best friend.

Silver Lining

So, what do I, as a psychologist, think of this trend where schools are banning best friends? I have thought about it long and hard, and I say bring it on.

This makes me more confident applying to grad school for psychology. Receiving your Ph.D. doesn’t seem to require thinking all that hard or for all that long.

This post would be more accurately titled “High school students prohibited from calling another student their ‘best friend’ but that is considerably less catchy, and far more verbose.