I met my childhood best friend at the kindergarten drinking fountain.
I was waiting for her to finish taking a drink and heard someone call her name. I thought they had called her Melody, when in fact her name is Melanie. I thought to myself, “What a pretty name! I want to be her friend.” (If that’s not solid reasoning, I don’t know what is!) I asked her, “Your name is Melody?!” She corrected me, and we started chatting. I thought she was nice and I guess she didn’t think I was too bad either. I noticed she was funny and we started giggling together. And that’s it; after that, we were best friends. The end. And to this day, she is still one of my closest friends, after 20 years. (And we still giggle like we’re five when we are together!)
Think of your own childhood best friend. What is your “meet-cute” story? How does he or she compare to the best friends you’ve made as an adult? In many ways, Melanie and I are as different as two people can be. She is certainly completely different from the friends I’ve made as an adult, and vice versa. I often wonder about this: What makes the childhood best friend so unique? Why does this individual often seem an anomaly among one’s circle of friends? How do our expectations for friendships change as we get older? How do children choose their friends?
As a teacher and educational therapist in training, here’s my theory based on my time spent working with young children: There is a certain purity and simplicity to childhood friendships that’s just not captured in the adult friend-making process.
Let’s face it: Countless factors must align to allow a close adult friendship to develop in the midst of adult responsibilities, commitments, family obligations, travels, career aspirations, scholastic endeavors, and significant others. Our worlds are complicated, and very specific conditions must fall into place in order for a close adult friendship to develop, in which each person fits into the other’s already jam-packed world. Many factors- whether we realize it or not- determine how close we become with others as adults. Think about a close friend you made in recent years. You probably initially worked with them, went to school with them, or had the same group of friends- otherwise your paths would not have crossed often enough for any sense of closeness to develop. They also probably lived within your same geographic area, had a similar level of education, were on a similar socio-economic level, and enjoyed the same hobbies that you do. Basically, all of these factors probably facilitated your ability to even pursue a friendship. The result of having all of these boxes that our friends must fit into, it seems, is that as adults we tend to form close friendships with people who share many of the same characteristics.
On top of this, factor in the influence of social media and “friendship showcasing” (glamorizing friendship experiences for all of one’s social circle to see), and we find that we may not always be making friends based on the right reasons. It certainly seems that adult friendship-making can be a strategic dance dictated by the world, not people’s hearts.
Children’s friendships form in a simpler world- a bubble, really; hence the uniqueness of one’s childhood best friend. It seems to me that childhood best-friendships distill down to the meat of friendship– shared interests and compatible personalities– with all technicalities listed above stripped away. After all, children don’t choose their friends for any reasons other than the quality of the company they provide, and they see their friends daily at school, at a weekly extracurricular, or around the neighborhood, so friendships evolve organically through shared interests and everyday activities.
Childhood best-friendships form in a simple world where someone can be your “best friend” after one day; you both like each other, so why not be best friends? Asked with an open heart, the classic question “Will you be my best friend?” betrays the lack of artifice in the friendships formed in early childhood. All that matters is a friend’s “friendship personality”- Are they kind? Do they like the same things you like? Do you have fun with them? The rest is just details. No wonder our childhood friends can be so different from the friends we make later in life!
But don’t take my word for it. Consider these blurbs about friendship written by my students about their best friends:
Sarah, 4th Grade
Noah, 3rd Grade
Shelby, 6th Grade
Same hobbies + same interests + nice and kind + fun = best friend material? That’s the story that these children tell. At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss their refreshingly sweet views of friendship as nevertheless “naive” and inapplicable to adults. After all, we live in a complex adult world filled with responsibilities; can our own close friendships really be this simple? Is it unrealistic to expect children’s style of making friends to fit with our world?
Or, are Noah and Shelby and Sarah onto something, and are we really overcomplicating friendship? Would our circle of friends look very different if we went about making friends like they do? I can’t help but think that, for one thing, one’s group of friends would be much more diverse, and perhaps our friendships themselves would be more genuine.
Here’s some food for thought: If you met your childhood best friend for the first time tomorrow, do you think you two would end up as close friends? I often wonder about this myself. Melanie and I are so different in terms of “superficial” qualities: we have differing levels of education, opposing career goals, different circles of friends, and contrasting personalities. Would I be able to fit her into the boxes in my life? Would I fit into hers? What a shame it would be if I missed out on having her warm spirit in my life by giving too much thought to what my students would consider “unimportant details.”
Here’s a challenge: Think of someone you know who your childhood self might be drawn too, but who you would not currently consider a friend. Why have you two not connected? Forget all the “deciding factors,” resist the urge to make sure your friends fit into neat compartments in your life, and reach out to that person. Friendship may no longer be as simple as approaching someone with a pretty name at the drinking fountain. But you might be surprised at how taking a child’s approach– and weeding out worldly criteria– may lead you to authentic, set-apart friendships.