Last month saw the release of my new book Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter. The book describes and analyzes conversations I have had with children over the past 25 years about their philosophical questions and ideas.
Here is an excerpt:
In the following conversation about the ethics of attending friends’ birthday parties, some ten-year-old children discuss whether friendship requires always “showing up” for the significant events in our friends’ lives.
Jade: “It’s okay to want to be alone. If your friend is having a birthday party, and it’s not like you don’t like them or anything, but you don’t want to go. You’re not trying to hurt their feelings. You just don’t want to spend time at that and so you don’t.”
Noah: “I actually disagree with that. Having a birthday party isn’t a good example. You don’t do that. If it’s your friend and it’s their birthday, you don’t just say, ‘Oh, I can’t go to your birthday party because I want to be alone.’ You don’t do that. It’s your friend, so it’s worth it. You don’t just miss something like that.”
Kayla: “I respectfully disagree with that. Sometimes you feel alone and you can really wish them a happy birthday but say you’re not feeling quite up to it right now. Just say that you don’t want to come because you’re going through something or you really feel like you need some time alone. Some people feel like that. It’s not really disrespectful in most cases if you don’t go. If you just don’t go, maybe they’ll think you don’t care, but if you say, ‘Today I just want some time alone, I wish you a happy birthday, and I will talk to you tomorrow or maybe next week or something.’”
Beth: “If you just feel kind of lonely and down, and it’s a birthday party with a lot of people or even not a lot of people, but you just don’t feel like working yourself up to it. If you want to be alone, then if they’re a really good friend, they’ll probably understand.”
Avery: “I think it depends on how old you are. If you’re older, it’s different. If you’re younger, you need to go to things now because you might not be able to go to things as frequently when you’re older. When you’re older, sometimes you can’t show up, but now you don’t have anything else to do. When you’re older you’ll have things you need to focus on.”
Scarlett: “I would feel disappointed and sad if a friend didn’t come to my party, but I would think they probably had a good reason. It might not be as much fun without them, but I should respect them.”
Holly: “If it was my best friend, I would feel upset. Why would you not come to my party just because you want to be alone? But if it was a friend that I just met, I wouldn’t be as disappointed. If the reason was that a good friend just wanted to be alone, that would make me feel sad.”
Scarlett says that she would trust that her friend had a good reason for failing to appear as promised. In her view, on the one hand, not showing up for an important event is less likely to damage a close friendship because you assume the absence is for a good reason; on the other hand, several of the children seem to agree that the closer the friend, the greater the obligation to attend. Kayla, however, disagrees. She believes in honesty – if you don’t want to go, you don’t, and you candidly tell your friend you prefer to be alone.
Kayla’s view implies that a friend wouldn’t want you to do something you don’t want to do and would appreciate hearing the truth. But Holly maintains that wanting to be alone is a weak reason for not going; the closer the friendship, the greater our disappointment and hurt when a weak reason leads to a friend’s non-attendance. You might be more likely to accept, or simply care less about, a weak reason from a distant acquaintance who fails to show up. From a good friend, however, you expect a good reason.
Avery says that your obligations to attend your friends’ events depend on your age. “If you’re older, it’s different.” In some ways, then, perhaps children have fewer excuses for failing to show up at important events for their friends, as most (though certainly not all) children do not tend to be shouldering multiple other significant obligations. Adults generally have to juggle attending a particular event with other competing demands on our time, so arguably having less time for our friends’ occasions seems more justifiable. Nevertheless, dedicating some time to showing up for our friends does seem essential, no matter our age.
This conversation made me think about my own expectations of friendship. I try to go to all of my friends’ big events and expect that they will be there for mine, if feasible. I tend to agree with Noah: “You don’t just miss something like that.” But then I reflect about the question that Kayla’s point raises: Do we want our friends to come to our events solely out of feelings of obligation if they have no desire to be there? I wonder: if a friend really preferred to stay home, should I want that for them too, rather than letting my desire take precedence? The conversation led me to reexamine my belief that people should always show up for the events that matter to their friends. As I think about it, I come to see that asking a friend to do something that they really don’t want to do, not because they don’t love me, but because it is uncomfortable for them for some reason, is not an act of friendship.
Scarlett comments that although she would feel disappointed, she would respect the choice her friend is making, and Beth contends that if you are “feeling lonely and down” and just not up to attending, your friend “will probably understand.” We don’t expect our friends to be just like us. One friend might be very social and extroverted, and the other more introverted and less social. If friendship involves being able to “be yourself” and be understood and supported, should we expect our friends to attend our events if we know that they will not enjoy them? Part of friendship might be that we understand that our friends are different from us and will be more or less comfortable than we are in various situations.
The children assess whether different reasons for an action can determine whether the action is acceptable. Holly claims that the closer the friend, the better the reason should be to justify not showing up. On the one hand, if I threw a big party for a significant birthday and a close friend did not attend due to an important competing obligation, I would understand. On the other hand, if the friend’s non-attendance was because the evening of the party was a night that the friend wanted to stay home and watch a movie, I think I would feel hurt. My disappointment would stem from my hope that someone close to me would want to be at the party, and it would change my view of the friendship to discover that attending didn’t matter very much to them. By contrast, if someone I barely knew didn’t show up in order to stay home and watch television, I think Scarlett is right – this would seem much less important.
Jana Mohr Lone is the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and her most recent book is Seen and Not Heard.