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Not All Your Child's Peers Are His Friends. So Shouldn't We Stop Saying They Are?

Students whispering in classroom

When I was a teacher, it was the school’s custom that the adults would call the students “friends.” As in, “Okay, friends, please clean up and come to the rug for read-aloud.” Or, “Line up, friends, it’s time to go to music class.” I guess it was meant to sound, well, friendlier than, say, “class” or (God forbid!) “boys and girls.” And I did it too, the lingo becoming so natural to me that I hardly thought about it anymore.

Now that I’m a mother, I find myself calling any other little kids my son hangs out with his “friends.” All his classmates at preschool are his “friends.” Anyone who comes over for a play date (whether we’ve met them before or not) is "a friend.” Even a random kid who comes up to us at the playground and wants to play is “a new friend.”

This seems to be the norm. At least in the circles I travel in. The grown-ups call the kids “friends.” And, in turn, the kids learn to call each other friends. “My friend, Billy” did this, or “My friend, Catherine,” did that. “I have lots of friends!” is a common utterance among the two-year-old set.

But I can’t help but wonder (as I sometimes wondered when I was teaching, also) if all this friendliness is really such a good thing. No, I’m serious. Hear me out. Because, is a person you just met really your friend? What about a person you’ve met a few times but still don’t know very well? And what about (and this is where it becomes really important, I think) someone you actually don’t like at all? Is that person your friend?

We live in a world in which “friend” has actually become a verb. It’s something you do to someone. At least on Facebook. And, in that sense, it actually bears a striking resemblance to the way I, and the other moms I know, are using it when we say it to our children. It’s a term so broad that it could encompass anyone from someone you’ve known since birth and love dearly, to a person you met once at a party, and will never see again. In the Facebook sense, a “friend” could be someone you love or someone you actually don’t know at all.

But a “friend,” according to the dictionary at least (which I usually find is a good place to figure out what things mean, though I may be in the minority on that one), is “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” As in, someone you like. But my son certainly doesn’t like all his “friends.” And my students didn’t like all their “friends” either. Do I like all my friends on Facebook? I don’t even know some of them!