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Lucy Mangan on best friends

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I spend increasing amounts of my time envying the young.

Why wouldn’t I? They’ve got lovely skin, free bus travel and no-one sending them letters every week asking why they haven’t started a pension yet (because I can’t afford it, dear would-be providers. I have had to prioritise keeping a roof over my head now rather than hand over management fees to you for 30 years so that I may fuel the primus stove in my hovel later. I’m just madly irresponsible that way. As soon as I find a job that pays double what I earn now, you will be the first to know. Now feck off).

But never have I been more jealous of them than when I read of the new trend in primary schools to ban children from having best friends. Think of the hours of grief, the gallons of hot, desperate tears, the raw wounding of the heart such a policy would have saved in our youth if we hadn’t been permitted to forge those complicated emotional bonds that meant so much and broke under the strain of so little – a beloved rubber mislaid, a word misspoken, a party invitation ‘misplaced’… the ancient past and all its horrors rushes up to greet me once more. Brrrr.

Then of course my rational side takes over. For where would we be without the early, formative joys and heartbreaks of childhood friendship? They are where we first learn to navigate emotional storms and, gradually, to step around the many well-disguised pitfalls of relationships.

I have every sympathy for teachers who do not want to get involved in this messy business – especially these days, when they are already dealing with children who are not fully toilet-trained by the time they start school; who can’t use cutlery, haven’t had breakfast, and bring with them a thousand and one other needs that, although far outside the traditional teaching remit, must be met before the day can hope to bring any educational success.

But learning to form and discard (as painlessly as possible) friendships is a vital life-skill and one I have needed far more often than I have ever needed to find the area under a graph, or grow a broad bean with just a handful of wet newspaper and a jam jar at my disposal.

It is through ‘trying on’ people that we learn who suits us

Primary school is where you first learn that there are people who can, in that time-honoured phrase of watchful adults, ‘lead you astray’. And it’s where you learn whether you are going to stay away from these people in future or if you will spend the rest of your life seeking them out, and hoping that said watchful adults will furnish forth bail money/penicillin/tattoo-removal fees as necessary.

It is through ‘trying on’ different types of people at an early stage that we learn what, and who, suits us. Friends help us form ourselves. With practice, you can hope to have arrived by your early 20s at a place populated by the people who best know you and keep you being ‘you’. Those who will tell you when the real you is becoming too drunk/big headed/fat arsed-for-those- pants – as needed.

Good friends – and the ability to make and keep them – are vital. For most of us they are our primary support. We no longer live among extended clans and divorce can fragment the immediate family. Often we don’t find a partner and begin our own family until we are in our 30s, leaving a historically unprecedented number of years and roles for our friends to fulfil. We need to learn how to make them.

When I think of a primary school with a best friend ban in place, I think of little atomised bits of society bobbing aimlessly round the playground. The fallout may be terrible at the time when you break up with your latest besty, but it’s the old Buddhist saying playing in a minor key: “Sorrow carves the cup in which you hold your joy.” Or, as Debra Winger says to Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands; “The pain then…” (I’ll pause for readers who have seen the film to dry their eyes with me now. Ready?)… “Is part of the happiness now.” Wail.

In short, I’m afraid the poor, exhausted teachers must dig yet further into their depleted inner resources and allow their charges to experience all the highs, lows, tears and laughter of creating and losing friendships. Otherwise we will end up with a land full of emotionally cauterised and affectless stumps, which is worse – though admittedly less unsightly – than a land full of people who can’t use cutlery.

What do you think of Lucy's column? Tweet us your views @Stylistmagazine or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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