Do we really all have to be friends?

The line that gave respectme its name has served us very well over the years and made for a very popular poster and video campaign – ‘You don’t have to like me, agree with me or play with me… but you do have to respect me’. The thinking behind this was the need for a way to describe how we wanted to help children and young people shape the terms for relationships and interactions with peers.

While this sounded quite catchy and lends itself well to a campaign – I always wanted to it have substance – and that is why we always follow this up by exploring what does this statement actually mean or what does it actually feel or look like for children and young people?

It is a nice demand to make of people I know but again, what does it mean. For the most part – it means simply leaving someone alone – you don’t need to connect with them, learn about them, understand them or become friends with them – just let them be.

The example I tend to use when discussing this, relates to an experience I had when my second oldest was at nursery. As reputations were being built and lost around the sandpit I heard the teacher tell the boys and girls who were playing and getting out of hand that ‘they should all be friends and play nicely’. This was of course said with warmth and with the best of intentions but at the time it really got me thinking – ‘’Do they all haveto be friends?’ how realistic an expectation is this?

Now, if a bunch of 4 year olds cannot behave around the sandpit we need to intervene and let them know how they should behave but do they all need to be friends? No – should they be expected to play near each other in a civilised way? Yes – perhaps a better response is along the lines of ‘if you are all going to play here together you need to be nicer to each other, no grabbing or shouting and you take turns – that’s one of the rules here’.

That is an easier boundary to set and easier to role model, if you tell them they need to be friends you are setting up an unrealistic expectation that they can’t possible manage – friends with everyone in your class? Are we as adults expected to be friends with everyone we work with? Do we even like everyone we are related to at times? Of course not.

I know for some this is not a huge issue but friendship is one of the first currencies children have to withhold or bargain with – it is a very powerful tool in early years and as such I think we can frame it more effectively. I would rather see a group of P1’s who can get along on different tasks, are respectful of each other and make friends on their terms. This also lets us talk about what it means to be a ‘good friend’ and help them understand that there will always be a wide group of people around them throughout school, some you’ll be friends with. Some you’ll know and say hello to and some you won’t get on with or agree with.

The skills needed to understand and negotiate this will serve them well in life not just school. Anti-bullying agencies get a bit of stick at times because the impression they give is that all they want is for everyone to be nice to each other and in fact this is unrealistic – I think it’s no bad thing to want everyone to be nicer but I agree that it’s not realistic.

What I do believe is that we should be asking children to respect their peers and that can mean a whole range of things. It can include talking and listening to someone and perhaps becoming friends, or it can mean fixing what was once a friendship or it can mean learning to be quiet and not shouting at or about someone you don’t like. I think friendships are vitally important to our children and young people – they rely on them, value them and as they get older, they turn to them for support and comfort – all this message and these campaigns seek to do is to help frame an understanding of what it really means to be friends.  

Learning that it is okay not to like someone, that it’s okay not to agree with them is important – it’s what you do that matters. Not being friends does not have to mean that you are enemies. That is a message I have seen young people benefit from exploring on many occasions.

If you think about it there must be a few people in your life you don’t like, you don’t and never will agree with – you don’t hound and abuse them at every opportunity – you may have learned the hard way that a family Christmas dinner is not the time to get these feelings off your chest. It might be a colleague or your boss – most people learn to use their developed social skills that enables them to work effectively or not fall out with the whole family.

If you pick on, exclude or verbally abuse someone in person or online you don’t like or agree with then that’s the kind of bullying that will cause problems for everyone – if you are able to let them walk by, be online or in the corridor without you responding in some negative way – then everyone will be a lot happier.

We will always respond to bullying more effectively when we focus on what someone actually did and the impact it had. If they behaved in a way that is unacceptable then we focus on their actions and what they should be doing in future.  This will be more effective than trying to fix or reframe a dynamic between two people that might not need ‘fixed’- nor will it ever fit into what we might think a ‘friendship’ is.



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