Children’s points of view and ideas have changed the way I think about many subjects. Friendship is one of them. I think that children’s thoughts and observations regarding friendship are particularly insightful because friendship is so central in their lives. Especially once they begin school, children spend most of their waking hours with their peers, much more so than do adults. Learning how to develop and sustain friendships is one of the principal tasks of childhood Children’s perspectives about friendship should therefore of particular interest to adults.
The following conversation is excerpted from a longer conversation that appears in Seen and Not Heard. The discussion, with a group of ten-year-old students, began with a student asking whether it’s important always to show up for your friends’ events or if it’s acceptable if you, for example, just want to be alone, not to attend an event that is significant to one of your friends.
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. 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.”
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.”
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.”
The children assess whether different reasons for an action matter.
Holly claims that the closer the friend, the better the reason should be for not showing up. I agree. If I threw a big party for a significant birthday and a close friend didn’t attend due to an important competing obligation, I would understand. But 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 might 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 to stay home and watch television, I think Scarlett is right – this would seem much less important.
The conversation made me rethink my own expectations of friendship. I’ve always been a believer that you show up for friends’ events. I generally agree with Noah: “You don’t just miss something like that.”
But it’s one thing for me to commit to showing up for my friends’ events, because I love social events. It’s another for me to expect my friends always to show up for mine.
If a friend really prefers to stay home and does not want to attend an important event in my life, not because she doesn’t care, but because it is uncomfortable for some reason, shouldn’t I want her to do what’s best for her rather it being about what I want?
Isn’t that what being a friend is all about?