The life of the child: being friends, being good

Mark Vernon
8 March 2007

There are many ways of describing childhood. I have just been reading Adam Phillips's Going Sane, in which he talks about growing up in terms of battling the insanity of raw physical desires.

At the time, I happened to be staying with my brother, and my two nephews and niece (aged 4 1/2, 2 and 8 months respectively). My niece is still a baby and so is all desires, cute though many of them may be. However, my nephews are definitely growing up. And it struck me that something else is going on with them too. One of the chief tasks they are now engaged in is friendship.

One minute, they want to play together; the next, one of them can apparently think of nothing worse. Sometimes their playing together starts spontaneously; at other times, a parent must gently coax them into it. At some points in the day, you'd think they loathe each other - hitting out, quite unprompted; at other times, they love each other, hugging and lying together in the most tender fashion. This has much to do with sibling rivalries, as described by psychologists. But their parents' desire is more simply stated: that their children should be friends - friends with each other, and having internalised the capacity and pleasures of friendship, thereby to be friends with others.

Mark Vernon is the author of The Philosophy of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). With Ray Pahl, he is building a network of experts on friendship from a variety of disciplines. His website is here

Also by Mark Vernon in openDemocracy:

"The politics of friendship"
(29 December 2006)

The child's eye-view

Friendship has come to the fore in the recent discussions of childhood. The Unicef report that put the welfare of British children at the bottom of the list of rich countries, released on 14 February 2007, was one. It contained only one metric directly related to children's friendship, from the World Health Organisation's survey of health behaviour in school-age children (HBSC) 2001. The results of surveying 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds in more than thirty countries with the question: "do you find your peers generally kind and helpful?" provide the measure. More than half were able to answer "yes" in every OECD country except the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom (where the figure was around 43%). The United States and France, next from bottom on the list, scored around 53%. Switzerland and Portugal top the table with scores of around 80%.

Unicef acknowledges that there is limited data on children's friendship and that there are significant problems of definition to contend with too. And the report concludes: "In the absence of such detailed data for other OECD countries, this attempt to include 'relationships' in the overview of child well-being should be regarded as an initial step towards monitoring this dimension of child well-being."

There is clearly a lot of work to do here, both empirical and (because that can only take you so far) philosophical too - around the questions of just what friendship is and what the good life for children might be. So far, much of the work on friendship has been done via the concept of social capital - the idea that social cohesion and individual sociability can be inferred from statistics like the membership of organisations or participation in political parties. Much value has come from these studies. However, they only study friendship at a distance: as anyone who was forced to go to the boy scouts or brownies will know, such membership and participation does not necessary make for a happy, friendship-building time.

Better research needs to be done that captures the details of friendship directly. (An early example is Ray Pahl and Liz Spencer's book Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today). The key is to ask individuals about the role friendship plays in their lives, and then stringently to test what they say - for we are not used to being open and discerning on friendship; check-box research will often be deluded.

Another approach is followed by the Children's Society's Good Childhood Inquiry, which lists friendship as its number-two concern. Why? Children told the inquiry that it is a major factor in the goodness of their childhood. The first results on this aspect of their work will be reported in April 2007. They promise to be important and fascinating because, as the World Health Organisation has found, "(being) liked and accepted by peers" is "crucial to young people's health and development, and those who are not socially integrated are far more likely to exhibit difficulties with their physical and emotional health."

The question of children and friendship raises further pertinent philosophical points. A frequently voiced concern is that childhood appears increasingly "goal-oriented": that is, children - especially those from relatively affluent families - rarely do anything for its own sake, but usually as a means to some improving end. After school, they do homework, practice the piano or flute, go to ballet, are forced to go to the boy scouts. Even when they are playing with friends, the activity is framed in certain ways. As the Royal Society of Arts commission on risk points out, children are increasingly protected from risk. The great outdoors may be nothing more than the space between the front door and the car door. Children don't just wander off, find some friends, and play.

The recovery of well-being

Aristotle helps explain why this matters. He would have said that the goal-oriented context within which children exist can make for friends, but only of one sort: "utility friends". These are friends that we have because of the thing we do in common. But the limitation of such friendships is that if the shared interest or activity falls away, then the friendship tends to flounder too. This is why Aristotle encourages us to nurture friendships that are good for nothing - bar the friendship itself. Then, we may gain a friendship based upon knowing someone for who they are in themselves, and being known for who we are in ourselves. This he called "character friendship" - and it is harder to achieve, because it requires depth of character and time. But it is a much more rewarding kind of friendship for that; indeed, he argued it was necessary if human beings are to flourish in a good life.

To put it another way, alongside all the structured time that children experience, they need unstructured time simply to enjoy. This is not as easy to reintroduce as it might be thought: it goes to the heart of parental concerns about risk and the imperative that everything in a child's life should be somehow improving (for infant learning is now very closely aligned to future earning).

This in turn raises the vital role of friendship in education. This plays out at a number of levels. Thinking about the problem of bullying in schools, it seems clear that children need to be taught how to behave with others. However, an "education to friendship" means that the goal should not only be that they obey internalised rules, but that they recognise the invaluable goods internal to doing so. It's a bit like reading: at first it is forced, but then the hope is that it becomes a self-sustaining activity that grows into a great pleasure - part of the good life. Government policy on bullying might need to "fire-fight", but it also needs to recognise this greater aim or it will be counterproductive.

A further aspect connects to the family. Next door to where I live is a women's project. It looks after mainly single-parent mums who are disadvantaged for one reason or another. At the project, they can find hot meals, legal advice or educational help. However, the woman running it is clear about the one thing she is combating more than anything else: not just poverty, but the paucity of good relationships these individuals have in their lives. Most of these women did not learn about friendship from their parents - in many cases, because their father was not around or their home was violent. And so they don't much trust friendship now, particularly with men. The project-leader's answer is not to advocate tougher marriage laws, or somehow promote the family. That would only be counterproductive. Rather it is to show these women, and their children, what it is to have a friend.

True, the work of such a project is expensive in terms of time and money, not easily scaled up to be rolled out as a government programme, nor measured for vote-winning results. But such is friendship. Such is the good life. Such is another of the lessons that needs to be learned as we talk about children and their well-being.

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