All Together Now

In the classic dystopian novels, 1984 and Brave New World, societies encourage conformity by discouraging strong personal relationships. For example, in Brave New World:

The maxim “everyone belongs to everyone else” is repeated often, and the idea of a “family” is considered pornographic; sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are rendered obsolete because they are no longer needed.

Since schools are a big way we now train “self-control” to conform to social pressure, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that schools now discourage close friendships:

Increasingly, some educators and other professionals who work with children are asking a question that might surprise their parents: Should a child really have a best friend? … The classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling … “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.” … If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know. …

Such an attitude worries some psychologists who fear that children will be denied the strong emotional support and security that comes with intimate friendships. …

School officials admit they watch close friendships carefully for adverse effects. “When two children discover a special bond between them, we honor that bond, provided that neither child overtly or covertly excludes or rejects others.”

HT Robert Koslover.

Added 21June: Bryan weighs in.

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  • http://calculatingwords.blogspot.com Dan Bowen

    The idea to promote “big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends” sounds reasonable. I don’t think I agree with the thought of trying to discourage close friendships. Sounds like the administrators are just trying to make their job easier… at the expense of a kid’s typical emotional development.

    I’m all for independence tho, so I am very selective about the close friends I make. I’m grew up in a military family, so maybe I had to adapt to the understanding that most friends I come across would be fleeting. In that vain, friendship can be limiting also… obligations and outings take the place of (possibly) more productive endeavors. I don’t think it should be up to a camp or school administer to make rules one way or another though. Promotion is tolerable, but don’t get too carried away.

    • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

      Would adults want to be forced to include people they don’t like in their friendship groups?

    • fred

      “Sounds like the administrators are just trying to make their job easier…”

      Yes, exactly.

      • Peter Scott

        This is the first hypothesis I consider whenever school administrators do anything that doesn’t seem to make sense for the reasons they state: it’s for their own convenience. It usually explains things a lot better than the official justification.

  • stephen

    Funny, I guess, I just read about this on Joanne Jabob’s blog and emailed to my wife. Brave New World was mentioned, of course. I am not a fan.

  • kevin

    Besides 1984 and Brave New World, other early novels on this theme are Rand’s Anthem, and the work that inspired all three of these: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

  • Popeye

    Would it be surprising if a newspaper reporter is creating a society-wide “trend” from one or two data points?

    • Michael Price

      But that would be a reporter exaggerating the significance of facts for the purpose of selling a story, which could never happen.

  • Curt Adams

    I suspect that the tendency to have one close friend at a time in childhood (I certainly had it) is practicing for the non-sexual aspects of monogamous relationships. Juvenile play is frequently rehearsing for important adult activities (not just in humans, either). I’d be very reluctant to try to interfere with that particular tendency, because you might be preventing children from developing skills essential to a close long-term relationship, and that would be bad for functioning families.

    I don’t think close single friendships are particularly causative for cliquishness or bullying either. Cliquishness is from groups of friends, not pairs, and bullying IMO depends mostly on children being unwilling to call for adult assistance when bullied.

    • Daniel Armak

      I don’t think close single friendships are particularly causative for cliquishness or bullying either. Cliquishness is from groups of friends, not pairs, and bullying IMO depends mostly on children being unwilling to call for adult assistance when bullied.

      Indeed, close single friendships are also effective at defending each other against bullying. And a major reason schoolchildren don’t call for adult assistance when bullied is that they don’t trust those adults for protection.

    • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

      I’d be very reluctant to try to interfere with that particular tendency, because you might be preventing children from developing skills essential to a close long-term relationship, and that would be bad for functioning families.

      That would fit right in with the dystopian ideal of the atomized conformist. Who needs functioning families when everyone belongs to everyone else?

    • Rev. J. Shaffer

      “bullying IMO depends mostly on children being unwilling to call for adult assistance when bullied.”

      Bullying, IMNSHO, depends mostly on children being taught to run to “the Authorities,” rather than being capable to deal with the problem themselves – which severely stunts their long-term emotional growth and reduces their ability to handle adversity, by making them unnaturally, unhealthily dependent. Ratting on a bully generally incites retaliation – blacking his eye is much more off-putting.

      I’m in my 40s and, compared to when I was young, it does seem like there’s “some bizarre cult” running things. . .

  • http://queersingularity.wordpress.com/ Summerspeaker

    That’s rather disturbing.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “That’s rather disturbing.” But is it true? I’ve seen this done before by cults, but this is the first I’ve heard that this is a widespread norm in public education. I never saw this and I did school a long time after Brave New World was punished. This feels bullshitty to me.

    • Vladimir M.

      Since the New York Times is writing about it in a serious and respectful way, I would guess that it is indeed the official policy in a non-negligible number of places. What the situation looks like in practice is a different question, of course.

      That said, I agree about the cultish aspect. I’m only in my thirties, but compared to the world I remember from my childhood, more and more things seem as if the entire planet has been taken over by some bizarre cult.

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        ” I’m only in my thirties, but compared to the world I remember from my childhood, more and more things seem as if the entire planet has been taken over by some bizarre cult.”

        I haven’t seen this transformation. Overall, the state of global mental health seems high to me relative to any point I can think of in the past.

      • Michael Price

        “Since the New York Times is writing about it in a serious and respectful way,” yes because they were so right on the Iraq war. The fact that the mainstream media suggests it’s a trend indicates it’s either not one or will soon be over.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “punished” obviously should read “published”.

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  • Bill

    Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer would have a difficult time.

    That’s all I can say.

    I would also suspect that this is overblown, and has few datapoints.

    What we should be teaching kids is to think for themselves and not follow the herd of Fox News.

    Ever look at how a news organization amplifies (and even creates) a herd, and encourages herd behaviour.

    Who is the sheep.

    You or your 12 year old.

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    Did our hunter gatherer ancestors have all inclusive friendship groups as children?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I guess the state must have succeeded in crushing its eternal enemy, the family/clan, and moved down to the next smaller locus of alternate authority.

    The Athenians (or maybe it was the Romans) had a legend about two who succeeded in overthrowing a tyranny thanks to their especially strong bond. But they were gay, so that might be a bit apples’n’oranges to this.

    Speaking of dystopian fiction, have any of you read This Perfect Day? I haven’t but just heard it mentioned at Mises.

    I hope you don’t watch CNN/MSNBC or read the New York Times, Bill.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Educators are doing whatever purely practical stuff will make kids easier to manage. They don’t have any grand designs on getting kids to conform to social pressure.

    In general, Robin, I think you tend to overestimate how well-coordinated society is.

  • http://newpolisblog.blogspot.com Nico

    John Maxwell IV, I think Robin makes these kind of arguments based on something more emergent, like group evolution, rather than deliberate, large-scale coordination.

    I tweeted that this reminds me why Ayn Rand is still relevant, but I would also caution against overreacting. There really are a lot of kids who suffer because of social exclusion. This is certainly not the right way to address this problem, but I do think it’s a legitimate thing for school administrators to worry about.

  • Matt

    Huh. Treating other people in favored fashions is insufficiently Utilitarian, I would assume. After all, who are children to make arbitrary distinctions between who is deserving of their attention. Sounds like some kind of discriminative process is involved.

    More on topic, friendships and cliques are how children form their own social orders in school. If they can’t do that, they may not really understand the concept that they can (or how they can) as adults as well. So this supports the idea that schools are about forming children who accept the social order as it stands.

  • JS Allen

    When I was in second grade, 30 years ago, my teacher implemented a policy that none of us was allowed to say “no” when a classmate asked to play with us. One of the fat and unpopular students used this to his advantage, to compel us to play with him. Children who don’t want to be compelled are very creative, and the students eventually learned to manage. The fat kid went downhill from there, and ended up murdering another student in the parking lot during 11th grade, and going to prison. I don’t think that the teacher’s policy helped very much.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    “I tweeted that this reminds me why Ayn Rand is still relevant”

    Not here, since it isn’t the state that’s doing this. Of the four administrator types quoted in the article, only 1 is or sounds like a public-sector official. The other three are from a private prep school, another private prep school, and a summer camp that costs $10,000 to attend.

    Ayn Rand is too much of a sci-fi writer to be correct in her vision — believing that space aliens called the government would parasitize and ruin human society. In reality, humankind is its own worst enemy. We see that in this news article by the fact that its the kids’ parents themselves who are bankrolling the war against best friends; it’s not some government policy being foisted on unwilling families.

    • JenniferRM

      Its curious… in my head I always include Ayn Rand (also Borges for basically the same reason) as an honorary producer of science fiction because the writing was primarily about intellectual ideas considered via a medium of deeply visualized counter-factual worlds that served to illustrate basically philosophical arguments.

      It is precisely the “thought experiment” aspect of the content (in a manner that reminds me of science fiction) that made me think it was good content.

      Personally I think Rand’s actual claims were weak because so much of her argumentation flowed through ad hominem arguments based on “ugly people who said bad things and lose” versus “attractive people who said good things and win”… but in point of fact I do think she was trying to point to the moral failure of human beings rather than to the problems that come from government institutions.

      In Atlas Shrugged, for example, some of the formative experiences of one of the “heroes” grew out of a manufacturing company that stopped demanding honest work in exchange for honest pay and collectivized the benefits and work requirements because that course of action “sounded good” to the new owners and the bulk of the existing employees.

      My understanding was that Rand’s objective as a creator of propaganda (and later as a cult leader?) was to make “economic rationality as she understood it” into something sexy enough that people wouldn’t buy into their own eventual enslavement.

      I don’t agree with her about the shape and nature of rationality, nor about what human virtue really looks like, but I still found the content and the aims interesting, in part because “rational self interest” is a really hard sell as far as signaling goes, and she made one form of it work for percentage of the population that wasn’t completely negligible.

  • R. Pointer

    MICDS in St Louis is one of the upper class schools. 16k in Kindergarten and 20k in high school. I guess they want to promote the broad social capital for which the parents are paying.

    On top of that, didn’t Mark Granovetter identify weak ties as being more beneficial than strong ties? While we all like the best friend idea, it really isn’t the best way to take home a jackpot or circulate in elite social circles. Shallow is good.

    • Sebastian Franck

      So taking home the jackpot and circulating in elite social circles is good? Which school did you get socialized in?

  • Tracy W

    Since schools are a big way we now train “self-control” to conform to social pressure

    Are they? What is your evidence that schools do actually train “self-control” to conform to social pressure?

  • josh

    Now there are two of us, instead of only one,
    two times as many things get left half undone.
    We’re twice as half-asleep when the new day has begun
    and maybe twice as on the run,
    ’cause some of them will still be making fun of us.
    They’ll say “the two of you will never be one of us.”
    But even if that’s true,
    they’ll have twice as much to do
    when there are two of us,
    and one of them is you.

    They’ll find the two of us much harder to restrain,
    outsmarted by our impressive double brain
    If one of us runs dry, still another will remain,
    and it’s twice as hard to pull the chain
    of two of us, against a ton of them:
    but two of us outnumber every single one of them.
    Two lives are semi-rough
    with half the rent and twice the stuff.
    There are two of us, and that should be enough.
    Look at everybody.
    Everybody’s always
    falling apart or breaking up.
    But the two of us never will be one of those,
    and I should know– I have had a run of those
    Our love’s not guaranteed,
    but it’s growing like a weed.
    There are two of us,
    I think that’s all we need

  • http://writelhd.blogspot.com Leigha

    This makes me think of the discussion around introversion and extroversion, introverts preferring closer relationships with fewer friends, extroverts preferring to have lots of friends and not focusing as much on the closeness. I don’t know if young kids figure out introversion/extroversion tendencies out yet, or if that is considered something learned rather than innate, but this idea seems likely to inadvertently punishing those with an introverted preference. That doesn’t seem a desirable result.

    Of course, having worked for an afterschool program where we were advised to discourage exclusive relationships, I seriously doubt all but the most draconian attempts would actually succeed at discouraging them.

  • Habman

    Appears they want to excelerate the rate of sociopath creation in this country even fast than it currently it. Hell let’s raise all our kids in veal shacks!