417. Children as Friends

When I first started teaching and parenting, I kept hearing the message that teachers and parents should not try to be “pals” to children. I didn’t like that message. I didn’t like the way people said the word “pals,” and I didn’t understand why they didn’t use the word “friend,” nor what was wrong with being children’s friend. “Friend” seemed, and still seems, like the most important thing a teacher or parent can be to a child, or to anyone else.
But I realize, now, that some people who delivered that message did not mean it the way I heard it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with friendship. It’s one of my favorite things about life as a human being here on earth. I don’t think most people were disagreeing with me about that, nor trying to totally exclude children. I think we agree that everybody needs friends.
There was something else being implied by substituting the word “pal” for “friend.” When I was twenty-one and starting to work with children, I had not yet fully accepted the reality that I was not a child. So I was not ready to accept the degree to which the world of children is a separate world. I wanted to be part of that world in every way, and in some ways, I sort of made a fool of myself trying. Some children seemed to like it, but some seemed to feel as if I was a double agent.
But I believed then, and I believe now, that friendship, broadly conceived, belongs to both children and adults. And I think there can and should be plenty of cross-over. Adults often know more and think more skillfully, but not always. And superior knowledge or thought doesn’t have to be a barrier to friendship. I have plenty of adult friends who know things I don’t know and are able to think in ways I’m still learning to think. And vice versa. That phenomenon, properly recognized and used, enriches the friendships.
Maybe substituting the word “pal” for “friend” implies that the adult is trying to avoid adulthood – that the possible gains made by growing up don’t really exist, or aren’t factors in adult/child friendships. I’ve sometimes made the
mistake of inappropriately treating a young friend as an authority figure, and I’ve seen other adults do that. I still do it once in a while, but I’m learning not to. It’s dishonest; both the adult and the child need to be aware of who’s who.
Knowing who’s who helps to define friendships, but does not have to make them any less substantial. And children who are my friends are going to grow up. Some of them already have. I learn from them when they’re children, and I hope to keep learning from them as they become adults. They’re my friends. Maybe not my “pals;” I’m willing to let go of that word; I never liked it much anyway. But friends.

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