Posted: Jun 17, 2014 7:00 AM
Many parents worry that young children need a group of friends to choose from so that they always have options when it comes to play dates and recess. But there is a lot to be said for a "best" friend. Nurturing one close friendship gives children the opportunity to work through obstacles with a safe and trusted friend.
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For my entire childhood, I had a best friend. She lived down the street and we spent endless afternoons together wandering the woods in our neighborhood, playing rousing games of "little kids" with my brother and his best friend and walking to a local movie store to rent Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (again). Although we played with other kids at recess and had play dates (although in those days we just called it, "Can you come over?") with friends from school on occasion, we spent most of our time together. Our personalities clicked and the close proximity of our homes meant that we had the freedom to walk back and forth whenever we felt like it. To this day, I am beyond grateful for the friendship that is so much a part of who I am and has survived time, distance and change.

The fear of exclusivity and bullying has changed the way we approach helping children establish and nurture friendships.

Things are different today. Kids don't roam the neighborhood as they once did, and play dates require advance planning. In the classroom, teachers work hard to ensure that kids don't pair off and leave others out. The fear of exclusivity and bullying has changed the way we approach helping children establish and nurture friendships. From the moment children enter kindergarten, they are taught to befriend everyone around them. For academics, they are grouped based on reading and math levels, but the days of choosing partners for other projects seem to have faded away. Seats move frequently in some classrooms, and many teachers prefer to pair kids off when it comes to working together. While these practices do help kids reach out to others, establish new bonds and work on social interactions, a best friend can be an enriching experience.

My son plays in groups in his preschool, and he shifts from friend to friend depending on the nature of the play. But my daughter has a best friend. They met in kindergarten and hit it off in an instant. Similar to my childhood experience, my daughter's best friend lives around the corner and feels completely at home in our home. They play with other kids at recess and at the park, but they always have each other. Through this friendship my daughter has learned to assert herself, listen carefully before responding and compromise. Although they sometimes take time to negotiate play, they work things out through the safety of their friendship. Together, they are honing social skills that many adults are still working on. And there's something to be said for that.

Emotional support

Intimate friendships provide unconditional support. We expect kids to separate with ease, work through any obstacles that arise, and do their best at school each day, but it isn't that simple. Kids encounter various stressors when they're away from us, and it can be hard to work through the ups and downs of a day in the life of a young child without the security of a loving parent nearby.

A best friend can be an incredible support system for children. Even if they don't sit at the same table or spend every recess together, the knowledge that a close friend is there to provide empathy and support in times of need is a great source of security. I've watched my daughter help her best friend with a difficult task that triggered frustration, and I've seen her best friend comfort her when she fell on the playground. Together they thrive.

Fight fair

Kids argue at times. Little kids have big ideas and it can be hard to compromise and negotiate when friends have other big ideas of equal value. How do you start the game when it's impossible to establish the rules and boundaries? Kids can learn numerous social interaction skills (that will stay with them clear through adulthood) through the safety of a best friendship. Arguing and making up are parts of life. I'm not an argumentative person by nature, but I need to know how to remain calm and focused when the fight response kicks in, and I need to apologize when I've hurt another person in some way. These are skills that I practiced with my best friend as child.

Kids also learn to listen, console and empathize when engaged in an intimate friendship.

Self-esteem soars

Friendships change over time. As children grow older, they sometimes find themselves searching for the right fit — the right group to call home. Sometimes soccer players stick together. Other times kids who love Legos and building gravitate toward one group. It's natural to try to find a group with common interests. But it isn't always easy and kids can feel left out. School is a lonely place to be when you're not sure where you belong.

When we finally made it to high school, my best friend and I chose different schools. It wasn't always easy in high school. There were times when I didn't know which way to turn. But whether or not I fit in to any one group didn't upset me as much as it could have because I knew that my best friend was always in my corner. Despite the fact that we were no longer together every day, she was still just a phone call away.

Sometimes that one person who knows you inside and out and loves you anyway can really guard you against any obstacles that life presents.

Intimate friendships can increase self-esteem and help kids feel more secure in who they are. Sometimes that one person who knows you inside and out and loves you anyway can really guard you against any obstacles that life presents.

As I watch my daughter navigate early childhood with her favorite sidekick in tow, I can't help but feel grateful. My greatest hope is that this little friendship stands the test of time and gives each one of them the confidence they need to confront the stormy seas that we call "life."

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