This morning, a beautifully decorated envelope arrived at our house in West Cork. Carefully coloured-in birds and flowers surrounded the address, written meticulously carefully in a child’s handwriting. My eight-year-old daughter’s heart soared to find this letter from her very best friend, sent all the way from England. Having disappeared into her bedroom to devour each word, she immediately located some coloured card to pen a reply – which, no doubt, will be similarly floridly decorated before being sent.
Friendships are a huge aspect of childhood. Even babies find themselves naturally drawn to crawl over to play with particular children. When this simple affection is reciprocated, the pair form a nascent friendship, where they learn ways to play happily together. They simply enjoy being around each other and, with time, bonds form. When kids click, they gravitate to one another with remarkable ease, as if drawn together magnetically. A simple smile shared by childhood friends belies a deeper recognition of the other. It speaks of our natural capacity for kindness, and the warm desire to reach out and connect to others, which we all possess.
For parents, our children’s friendships can often dictate our own. If our respective gaggles of kids get on well together, it’s far easier for families to visit each other. If not, it can be next to impossible – without enduring the embarrassment of bickering and arguments, and confidently screamed assertions of: “You’re not my friend! I’m never playing with you ever, ever again!”
Nowadays, parents have a greater role than ever in facilitating childhood friendships. In the past, kids just ran over and knocked on the doors of those they wanted to hang out with. Now that kids are less free-ranging, friendships can often only blossom if we parents are take the time to arrange play dates and meet-ups.
Children’s friendships take on ever-increasing complexity as they get older. Even by the age of 6 or 7, friendships can assume a political character, as children categorically list their “best friends in the class”, and their “best friend in the whole world”. Those in pole position can change, and so an element of competition comes into it. Kids can feel devastated out when they are dethroned as “best friend forever” – or “BFF” in the contemporary parlance.
In the social jungle of the schoolyard, kids are often defined by the friends you have. Rival gangs and groups coalesce, often involving complex systems of alliances and truces – with perhaps the occasional battle breaking out. Despite greater awareness these days, bullying can sometimes sadly come into play. If not handled properly by teachers and parents, this can result in misery and trauma for kids.
Yet thankfully, despite such inevitable complexities, childhood friendships are predominantly a source of joy and happiness for children. To this day, I recall vividly the friends I had at the age of 8 or 9, and the many adventures we had, swimming in rivers, “borrowing” apples or creeping into a derelict haunted house.
These innocent friendships stay with you into adulthood, perhaps serving as models of what friendship should be. For children’s friendships are fundamentally simple: I like you, I care about you and I want to spend time with you. Yet, when I hear snippets of their conversations, these friendships also seem surprisingly profound. As well as speaking of games, jokes and new toys, they also speak of their families, their love of nature, their feelings, and their dreams of the future, and what their lives might one day be.
The children and their close friends care about one another in a vivid and unaffected way. They watch out for one other vigilantly, and are forever giving each other little gifts. They show each other exuberant warmth and kindness on each meeting – without the slightest concern that their BFF might find it a little OTT. In this, perhaps the children have more to teach us adults about friendship than the other way round.