I asked my 5 year old what makes a good friend. He told me, “somebody who shares their candy and doesn’t hit.” I also asked what made HIM a good friend. He thought about it for a minute and said, “well, I don’t usually have much candy but I let everybody play with my train set.” A couple things struck me about our conversation. First is how much a 5 year old’s brain is obsessed with candy. Second is that even little kids seem to understand the basics at the core of friendship.
How Important Are Friends?
They are pretty important. Friends make up our social groups or tribes which allow us to share values, rituals and provide emotional support (more on the balance of being social and tribalism). We get a lot of positive experiences out of these groups and our lives are better for it. Research bears this out with findings that among adults, those who are socially disconnected have an increased risk of death by at least 50%. That’s a lot and it’s about the same damage as smoking.
This is in part why it’s important to encourage kids to explore and maintain friendships. And this isn’t always easy. We live in a time when kids aren’t getting as much outside play with friends as they did in past generations. When they get home from school, kids don’t seem to go roam the neighborhood, knock on friend’s doors or otherwise engage in spontaneous activity or conversations. A lot of this has been replaced by social media but it also seems to be a generational shift. There is a big loss to kids when they don’t just hang out, have conversations and build the necessary social skills for thriving in the adult world.
We might be inclined to say that the qualities of a good friendship are obvious. A person might be a good friend or a bad friend but there isn’t much to discuss because everybody knows the difference, right? But there is so much nuance in how we contribute to a friendship and what we expect in return. Taking a closer examination with kids can help them better internalize which qualities are good and which really are required.
Here are a few exercises to discuss and examine friendship.
Aristotle Put His Friends Into Categories
After writing the above title, it makes me wonder just what kind of crazy it was to be Aristotle’s friend. I’m just imagining grabbing a bite to eat in a Greek cafe with Aristotle. He unfolds his newspaper and you make a poor choice of etiquette in asking for ranch dressing on a Caesar salad. Lowering his paper with a with a look of disgust–poof, he downgrades the friendship.
Ok, Aristotle didn’t categorize friendships like a cool kid in high school, but he did put a lot of thought into how different friendship characteristics impact our lives. Aristotle devoted nearly two whole chapters (books VIII and IX) of the Nichomachean Ethics to friendship. Here are a few excerpts you can discuss with your kids (note: I changed gender specific words in a few cases to avoid confusion for kids):
For without friends no one would choose to live, though [they] had all other goods; even rich [people] and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk.
And in poverty and in other misfortunes [people] think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-‘two going together’-for with friends [people] are more able both to think and to act.
- After reading the above, do you think Aristotle believes that friends are important? What types of people need friends according to him?
- Why does Aristotle think even a rich person needs friends? What does the “opportunity of beneficence” mean and why is it important? Do you think it would be hard for a rich person to know which of his friends are true friends and which are more interested in their money?
- The above quote seems to give a positive spin on friends helping you make good choices. Can friends also encourage us to make bad choices? Or do we sometimes misjudge people to be a friend when they really are not?
And it’s true. Aristotle did put friendships into categories. Here are the 3 he talks about in the Nichomachean Ethics:
- Pleasure: This type of friendship is when two people enjoy doing something specific with each other but it doesn’t extend past the activity. For example, you might meet another kid at the park and have a good time playing tag with her on the play structure. But when she comes to your house, you discover that you don’t have shared interests or maybe she seems more interested in playing with your toys than you.
- Utility: A friendship of utility comes by chance through the course of normal life but is based on some mutual benefit. An example might be a classmate with whom you work on a team. An older person might strike up a friendship of utility with the doctor that they see a couple times a month. They might know personal details about each other, but when the person no longer needs to see the doctor, the friendship ends.
- Virtue: This might also be called a true friendship. It isn’t based on what a person gets in return but rather on a true concern for the other person. Aristotle says that a true friendship is rare, takes time, mutual recognition and requires frequent face-to-face interaction.
Friendships based on pleasure or utility are similar in that they are not permanent and are based on some other benefit that comes from it. Aristotle believes that all 3 types of friendships have a place in our lives but they must also be in balance. Everyone needs those that they can call true friends but it requires time and work.
- Can you think of an example of a friendship of pleasure in your life? Is it one that could develop into a true friendship or is it best left as it is?
- Can you think of an example of a friendship of utility in your life? Is it one that could develop into a true friendship or is it best left as it is?
- Think of a person you would call a true friend (family members count). What experiences have you had with this friend that makes you really appreciate them? How do you act like a true friend to them?
For more in depth discussion on Aristotle and friendship, see the study guide for “What Did Aristotle Look For In A BFF?” complete with activities geared towards kids.
Rank Qualities of a Good Friendship
- Draw A Good Friendship: Have your kids draw what a good friendship looks like but the catch is to not draw people or anything that looks like people. The goal is to get at the traits, characteristics or emotion that a good friend provides (they can draw hearts, a home, etc or any other depiction that inspires them). Take a few minutes and let them draw as long as they have ideas.
- Discuss Drawings: After they have completed their drawings, have them present and explain what they drew. Start a list of qualities of a good friendship based on their explanation (phrases or single words are fine).
- List Qualities: Continuing from the last step, add any additional qualities for a good friendship that you can think of. Some qualities will overlap or be similar but that’s ok.
- Combine Similar Qualities: Using colors (with pens, crayons, etc.) mark qualities in the same color that are similar. Don’t get too worried about overlap–just do your best. Discuss each color coded group and decide what is the underlying quality. For example, below is a portion of our list (yours doesn’t have to look the same). Those marked in red might be grouped into the quality of “love.” And those in orange might be “trust.”
- With your list of consolidated qualities, put them into a new stack-ranked list from most important to least. Discuss (or write to the side of each) which is required and which is nice to have. Also identify any unicorns which is defined as any trait that if a friend has, it doesn’t matter if they have any of the others.
Is It Complicated?
What do you think? Is describing a good friendship more complicated than you originally thought? Can you really go down a checklist to find a good friend? Or is there more to it that what can be written down on paper? Here are a few more questions to consider:
- Did you identify any unicorns? Was it hard or easy?
- Consider the required trait at the top of the list? Why couldn’t it be a unicorn?
- Consider all of those marked as required. If you could have a friend that has all of these but 1, which would you pick? Or would this be possible? (This is to test if everything on the required list is really required.)
- Does your list have more required traits or nice-to-have traits? If you have more nice-to-have traits on the list, why aren’t they required? Does this mean that a good friend can have flaws? And not be perfect? Is that ok?
- Aristotle says that you can’t “wish wine well” and no doubt you’ve heard people say “(chocolate, comfortable pajamas, some tv show) is my only friend.” Can we really be friends with things that aren’t alive? What do people really mean when they say these types of things? What about animals? Can you be friends with an animal?
- Aristotle identified two types of friendships (pleasure and utility) that are based on the benefit received. When that benefit is gone, so is the friendship. What is the difference between this and the traits you identified as required? Aren’t there also benefits that come from such a friendship? It seems to be a bit of a puzzle that in a true friendship, there are still benefits which need to be present, but somehow keeping track doesn’t happen anymore. What do you think causes this?
After going through these exercises, it’s also important to have your child think about how they demonstrate these traits towards their friends. Maintaining good friends goes both ways and coaching kids to consider their actions and how they treat their own friends will go a long way to becoming a socially healthy adult.