Of Friends and Friendship

This article is an attempt to reflect on one or more aspects of the nature of friendship in order to work out some of the implications for children and young people who find themselves in the care system. It was a simple comment that stirred the theme into life, “A friend is someone with whom you can reminisce”. The context of the comment is instructive. It was made by one of a family that had recently moved home, over sixty miles.

For a few weeks its members have been learning to find new ways of communicating with old friends, at the same time as finding new friends. In the process they had begun to wonder whether there was such a thing as “new friends”. Is this not an oxymoron? You can make acquaintances that are, by definition, new when you meet them, but can you have a new friend? Of course all friends and friendships have to start somewhere and so there must be a beginning to every friendship. But at the outset neither person knows the outcome. We meet hundreds of people during our lives, but only a few become genuine friends. Not all of these could have been predicted in the early stages.

Looking back, and with hindsight, the idea of reminiscence at the heart of friendship may well have some interesting insights to offer. We can think of friendships as revolving around mutual interests, shared training, sexual attraction, common periods of life, suffering, trauma, worldviews and the like. But is there not somewhere in all of them the sharing of reminiscences? Friends have stories that they can speak of because they are based on experiences common to each, though they will see them from different perspectives. It is commonly said that friends can take up a conversation after a long period of separation as if no time had elapsed at all. This suggests plenty of material out of which reminiscences are made.

Given this approach to the subject, let us consider a child or young person who has been separated from parents and family for long periods, or who is in contact with them, but does not have shared experiences. Such a child may recognise her mother or father, but not be able to share reminiscences with them. If, this is the case, is the child equipped for friendship? Or is an understanding of friendship, like so much else, learned at home?

If we then construct the child’s likely trajectory through life, using the model developed by Dan Hughes in Building the Bonds of Attachment, it is not difficult to plot a course on this axis. There will be a pretty predictable sequence or succession of care workers, mentors, social workers, teachers, and peers; if the child is in foster care, it is likely that there will be several fostering episodes; if in residential care, then the chances are that there will be even more carers coming into and then disappearing from her life.

Now, let’s be clear about this: some of these will be sympathetic; some will share similar interests; some may know the same, familiar places; some may support the same football team, or like the same bands … but none of them will be able to share reminiscences until and unless the relationship has been allowed to grow over time. One wonders how long a relationship needs to develop before it is appropriate to use the term reminiscence. Let’s assume that you can become friends in this sense in say a year, then what interval of time is necessary before you can look back to that period and reminisce?

Checking out with a random selection of adults, the term seemed to be used of those with whom one shared all or part of childhood (for example, going to the same school; or being close neighbours), or sharing college, university or a sustained term of work together.

So it is not hard to see that the odds are stacked against a child who enters the care system having many friends, because she lacks the sort of life-story in which to make friends.

What might be the implications?

Here are a few.

The child lacks some of the basic skills in human relationships that, if not learned, are certainly honed in friendships, starting with those in the nuclear family or household.

The child is desperately looking for friendships, having observed some in others, and so tries to control relationships and turn them artificially into “friendships”. The idea that friendships must be allowed to develop or let free to take their own particular shape is a very difficult one to grasp if one has not experienced friendship from the inside.

The child is easy prey to those who seem to offer them friendships, but who then, having groomed them (to believe that they are firm friends), abuse them emotionally, physically and sexually.

Likewise, the child is easy fodder for the multi-national corporations seeking to come alongside in the form of places and products associated with images of friendship.

The child is not able to distinguish between shades of relationship, and so in potentially close, sexual relationships is likely to be seeking, albeit unconsciously, the familiarity and friendship that is at the heart of good parent-child relationships, but is not co-terminous with it.

The child is not able to navigate the tortuous distinctions between private and public, personal and collective, image and reality that are necessary for safe and healthy communications using social networks.

The child is fodder for religious and political movements and organisations that offer recognition, affirmation, and even eternal bliss through martyrdom and which seek out those without good friends who can bring them back to reality and keep their feet on the ground.

During 2013 in the UK there has been a series of revelations concerning a so-called “Asian” gang (the adjective is disputed by many Asians, because it would be more accurate according to them, to call it a predominantly Pakistani Muslim gang) that groomed and exploited a number of teenage girls in the care system in Rochdale, Lancashire. There have been many recriminations and proffered explanations: notably inadequate parenting, poverty, the inability of statutory and voluntary organisations to work together in the interests of the victims, the particular problems faced by Pakistani males living on the frontiers of two contrasting cultures, the weaknesses of the care system, the lack of options open to those in the care system and police to provide safe boundaries for the young women …

But few, if any, have explored whether these females lacked friends.

It would be worth finding out, not only for the benefit of those who might otherwise be subjected to similar abuse, but to all those described in the categories above.

And it might be worth at the same time considering how well those who are appointed to positions in the care system understand friendship. It is just possible that they/we constitute another category: those who compensate for loneliness and lack of friends by entering a career or profession that provides opportunities for a sequence of quasi-friendships, but always contrived, and often controlled.

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