Let’s get the important details out of the way first:
One of the most significant findings to come out of this growing field is that making friends isn’t the same as being popular: The ability to initiate and maintain close relationships is different from simply being liked and accepted by the group. To make friends, it turns out, children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share.Here’s the other key paragraph:
When you’re little, most people enter your orbit through circumstances outside your control. Your parents, your baby-sitter, your siblings—all are chosen for you. Friendships, in contrast, are almost entirely voluntary: Even if you’re encouraged to play with certain kids, no one can really force you to be buddies with them. Maybe this is why the friends we make when we’re very young later occupy such a special place in our memory: They represent some of our first meaningful choices as autonomous beings.To sum up, Friendship: A genuine expression of our earliest human freedoms.
When I think back to my childhood friendships, two of which remain strong to this day, the rate of return on happiness is close to 100%. Even if I think hard and try to remember the bad stuff, the betrayals or cruelties, I still think back on them with this warmth and love that is difficult to explain logically.
Truth is, I remember the first friend who felt like my choice. I remember being with all the neighborhood kids, and I was five, and lots of them seemed like my friends, but only, ultimately, neighborhood friends.
And this one kid, he was three years older, and he didn’t look quite like the rest of us pasty white kids. Straight ebony hair in a bowl cut. Big honkin’ glasses. Olive skin. It’s been 35 years, and I still can feel that deep, strange yearning in my child’s heart to know that kid better. Over the next few years, as some of the neighborhood kids moved away, he and I spent more time together. He was the older brother I never quite had, someone just older enough to admire and study and emulate, someone who had time for me. To this day, the importance of his presence in my young life is so overwhelmingly cherished in my memory that I’m typing this through blurry eyes.
Were there occasionally hurt feelings? Hell yeah. And unwise, unfriendly, or confusing moments. There was even a time when I went to bed crying, certain we weren’t goint to be friends anymore and feeling like I had no idea who I was without him.
He is no longer my “best” friend, but I can’t help but think he might be my most important friend. He, more than any other person (excepting my parents), shepherded me safely and thrillingly through my elementary school years and junior high. Even as he left for college up North and I entered my sophomore year, he was this distant anchor for me and our other friend, a constant reminder for us that we would survive the miserable confusion of high school and be OK and go to college and love it.
Childhood friendships. Perhaps if we did spend more time and energy investigating these amazing dynamics, we might find ourselves solving some of the very problems that occupy so much of our attention.