Do Our Daughters Really Need a Best Friend?

    Slumber party, 1983

When I hit high school, my “best friend” of 12 years stopped returning my calls. Stopped inviting me to her house. Stopped coming to my house. Even stopped sitting beside me in the cafeteria.

I’d read enough fiction to know that close friends sometimes drift apart, but this turn of events left a sense of sadness that lingered for years. What had I done? Why the near silent treatment from someone who owned half of my broken heart “best friends” pendant?

While I came to terms with the loss and moved on, I’ve questioned the concept of a “bestie” ever since — and today as a mom of grade-school girls, encourage a broader, more inclusive approach to friendship. After all, why attach yourself to the hip of one person, when so many people are worth getting to know on a closer, more intimate level?

Yet for many parents, resisting the idea that our daughters (or even ourselves) must have a best friend isn’t easy. What makes the lure of a best friend so strong? How can we help our daughters think beyond the BFF box and cultivate close, healthy friendships?  

BFF: a modern myth
In a number of ways, BFF-ism is a full-on myth, right up there with Prince Charming and life in the castle. And just as our girls are inundated with Disney princesses from toddlerhood on, they’re surrounded by messages that subtly (and not so subtly) tell them they need a best friend.

“When it comes to the BFF, girls are sold a bill of goods about friendship that looks a lot like the rubbish we're told about romance,” writes Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence, in an article for PBS. “There's one person out there who is our match, and we'll live happily ever after. The relationship with The One is supposed to be blissful, conflict-free, and permanent.”

But what really happens, Simmons explains, is that “girls wind up with wildly unrealistic expectations about themselves and their relationships, [and ultimately] blame themselves when reality bites, and the relationships shift or end.” 

Implausible, potentially harmful
My older daughter, Eloise, lived in three different states before the age of five. And she wasn’t the only nomadic preschooler on the block. These days, plenty of parents raise kids far from the familiar faces of their hometowns, and plenty relocate during the child-rearing years, whether by choice or not. Consider, for instance, that as many as 39.5 million U.S. citizens over the age of one changed residences from the 2012-2013. For many of these people, having a “best friend forever,” from birth through the golden years, just isn’t feasible.  

Even if it were feasible, is it healthy? “Psychologists across the board agree that relying on one person to fulfill all of your emotional needs is unhealthy,” writes journalist Alice Robb in an article for New Republic. “Because these relationships are very intense, they are also very fragile,” says Robin Dunbar, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, as quoted in that same article. “When they bust, they bust forever and acrimoniously.” 

For some, the quest to have or hold onto a best friend can grow into an obsession. “[I’ve seen students] get very possessive over friendships, and it is much easier if they share friendships and have a wide range of good friends rather than obsessing too much about who their best friend is,” shares Ben Thomas, headmaster of a private school in London. While Thomas has taken flak from a group of parents who view “BFs” as a rite of childhood, he stands by his stance that students are better off not tied down to one special friend.    

From “best friend” to “close friends”
Ask any grade-school or teenage girl if she’s ever heard a friend refer to another friend as a BFF, and chances are, she’ll answer yes. Most grown-ups, let’s hope, have enough tact not to drop the “BF” bomb around other friends, but kids and teenagers may not. Comments like, “I can’t play with you today because my best friend is coming over,” are not uncommon among young girls. Or worse yet: “I wanted my best friend to spend the night but invited you since she couldn’t make it.” What can help?  

For me personally, when my kiddos come home with stories of a friend talking about a bestie, or when I catch them doing it (as happened recently), I get on my soapbox about “close friends.” Close friends are just what they sound like: friends with whom we form close bonds. And unlike a BFF, we can have more than one.

Close friends aren’t the same as acquaintances, chatting when they run into each other at an event or, say, the grocery store. If they’re grown-ups, they like each other’s Facebook or LinkedIn posts and might even grab coffee together. But they keep things light and on the surface.

As social scientists behind the PBS show “This Emotional Life” explain, close friends:

➜ Exhibit mutual respect, understanding, and caring

➜ Lend support in times of trouble

➜ Inspire growth and learning in each other

➜ Foster a sense of security

➜ Validate each other’s self-worth

While the research varies on how many close friends we need to live full, happy lives, psychologists and medical doctors alike do agree on this: close friends are essential to our health and well-being. “People with strong social connections have less stress-related health problems, lower risk of mental illness, and faster recovery from trauma or illness,” PBS reports.

Interestingly, no studies I’ve encountered link “having a best friend” with those same benefits. One study did find, however, that we tend to replace half of our close friends every seven years — all the more reason to put our eggs in multiple friends’ baskets, instead of just one.

So as we navigate the meaningful yet fragile roads of friendship, and as we guide our daughters (and, yes, sons) on what it means to be a good friend, keep these suggestions in mind. At the end of the day, we all want to feel loved, accepted, valued, and respected. We all want and need good friends.