When parents talk about their children's traits and the match they see with a particular teacher's instructional method, Charlson tries to accommodate them. This is part of valuing parents as partners in their children's education, she says.
What if a parent asks for her child to be in the same class as a friend? There's a narrower opening for such requests. "Best friends? We don't do that," Charlson said, "unless the children need that social interaction to support their education." And if a pair of friends mistreats other kids when they're together, the request should go nowhere, said Charlson and the other principals I talked to. In case you had any doubt, there is research to support this: "Although having friends is typically thought to be beneficial, having aggressive friends may negatively affect the adjustment of youth," write University of Missouri professor Amanda Rose and her colleagues in a 2004 article in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Interestingly, Rose says that there's no consensus about whether bullies have fewer or poorer-quality friendships than other kids. Some studies show that their friendships offer similar levels of "companionship, help and guidance, conflict resolution, and conflict." Other research has found that the friendships of aggressive kids are less intimate and affectionate and involve greater power differences. But however these friendships serve the bullies themselves, they seem like a danger for other children. Everyone knows that two or three mean kids are harder to shrug off or stare down than one.
If two kids have a strong friendship that doesn't hurt the kids around them because they're nonexclusive and pull other children into their orbit, should schools let the friends move from grade to grade together? About this one I'm not a purist. We expect a lot of children to adjust to a new ecosystem every year. The mantra that they should start afresh each time by mixing with a new set of peers, rather than building on old attachments, has always seemed a bit much to me. I remember dreading each new year of elementary school, because my class list didn't include my closest friend of the year before. What if adults were told every September that they had to stop eating lunch or IM-ing with the colleagues they get along with best and must forge a whole new set of relationships? We wouldn't put up with it for a second.
And so I was sweating when I recently opened the letter with my older son's class list for this coming year. He and his close friend were together, as it turned out, and I took this as vote of confidence in the open, outward-looking nature of their relationship. Maybe it's a healthier friendship than mine were in elementary school. In any case, for this smooth start to the school year, I am grateful.
A version of this article also appears in DoubleX.
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