How many times have you been labeled somebody’s “best friend”? How many times have you given the label “best friend” as a child, as a teenager, or even as an adult? Is it a label that brings fond memories to you or one that holds feelings of being wounded?
I began to wonder about this seemingly innocent phrase when my oldest daughter was about seven years old. Abigail was a social butterfly! She loved people and had a lot of fun with her little friends. As a little girl she formed clubs, made pacts, wrote in secret code - you name it, if it was related to girly, friendship stuff, she did it! She loved her little-girl life.
While monitoring her play, I began to hear her use the term “best friend”. At first I just thought it was cute. I’d used the term often growing up and didn’t think anything of it. However, before long I realized that she wasn’t using the label on one little girl, it was to whichever one she was spending time with. I began to feel concern. Why did she feel the need to call every friend her “best” friend? I didn’t want my daughter to be fickle.
As I began to consider this, I was taken back to my childhood. I thought back to my friendships and began to tally up all of the girls I remembered giving the label “best friend” to. I realized that in a twelve year period (all my school years), I could recall having at least twelve best friends. That was nearly one a year! Now really! How many “best friends” can a person have? Yes, I believe I had been fickle. As I remembered those days, I was flooded with memories of my childhood. I had been betrayed by those two little words many times (and had betrayed my friends as well). I had never really been fond of the label, but I’d forgotten all that was wrapped up in those two little words.
I decided I’d better talk to my daughter and warn her of the hurt that can accompany that label. I wasn’t sure how’d I’d explain it to her and wondered if it would be a lesson better learned than stated, but no, I was her mother and it was my duty to instruct her and help her to avoid the things in life that can hurt or cause conflict. So, we had our mommy, daughter talk. I told her that it seemed to me that she was carelessly labeling all of her friends and was in danger of hurting one or many of them or being hurt herself. I explained that “best friend” means the one closest to you, the one you deem better than the rest. I explained to her that if one of her “best friends” found out that she had given the label to another, they’d feel it was a dishonest proclamation. I told her it would probably be better to use the words “special” or “dear” to describe her closest friends. She seemed to understand and said she’s stop using the phrase “best friend.” I thought, Wow, what a wise little girl, but…it wasn’t that easy.
Abigail continued to use the words, but she hid them from me. She no longer gave me her notes to her friends to “proof” (as was the requirement) and she began to say the forbidden words when she thought I wasn’t listening. For some reason, she just had to continue to throw that label out there. What was it that she hoped to gain by using it? Why couldn’t she quit? It was like a childhood addiction. Perhaps her friends were telling her she was their best friend and she didn’t know how to avoid it. I let it go for a time and just pretended it wasn’t happening. Perhaps I was making too big of a deal about it. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal in her life after-all.
When Abigail was about nine years old, we met a family with five daughters. Abigail and one of their daughters who was Abigail’s age hit it off immediately. I’m not sure if Abigail forgot about our rule by then or just thought she would try to use it outwardly again (which is likely the case), but she began to openly use “best friend” to describe this little girl. I let it go for a while, but I grew concerned at how important this became to both of them. They flaunted “best friend” necklaces, and matching clothes, and exchanged notes with the term of endearment all over the pages. I decided to approach Abigail again. Maybe she was mature enough to really hear me out and understand my concern.
We had the same conversation we’d had two years before. She seemed to listen to me and even agreed with me. I thought for certain she was ready to give it up. I talked to this friend’s mom, who had quickly become one of my closest friends. She admitted that she’d never thought through it before, but she could understand why I wasn’t thrilled about hearing our daughter’s use the phrase “best friend”. Together we decided we’d tell our girls to express their fondness for each other with other terms that weren’t so exclusive. It didn’t mean they couldn’t be very special and even consider each other “closest friends”, but we wanted them to avoid the unnecessary label.
However, the following two years our girls were felt the need to continue to use “best friend” with each other. They had an official cover-up. They picked words that they agreed meant “best”. I’m not sure if my friend caught on, but I did. It was something about the way they looked at each other when they said the code words. It was an “I’m sneaky” look. Was this a battle that would never be won? I grew discouraged. However, what I couldn’t seem to teach, God managed to do quite well. God began to show Abigail the painful side of this issue.
A couple of years later our family began to attend a new church. It was the same church these friends had gone to for many years but were no longer attending. The first day we were there, we told many people that we were good friends with this family. It was our way of connecting with the people. When the young girls of the church caught wind of that, several of them came to Abigail and said, “Oh, (so and so) is my best friend!” Abigail didn’t like that at all! She refrained herself and didn’t say, “Huh uh, she’s MY best friend!” But her heart screamed it. For the first time, she felt betrayed by those words.
It was shortly after that, Abigail came to me and said, “Mom, I finally understand why you don’t want me to use the label. I know what you mean about being hurt by the words “best friend”.” At the young age of eleven, through her own pain, it finally made sense to her. She had become possessive of that friend, and while she was willing to share her with others, she couldn’t stand the thought of others “claiming” her, as if she belonged to them. She decided that day that she would stop using those words, but like any other addiction, it took time to completely give up the thoughts and the emotions attached to the term.
It’s been a few years now, and Abigail is thoroughly convinced of the potential hurt involved with the phrase “best friend”. These two words when used together create an attitude of possessiveness and favoritism. Just recently Abigail wrote a paper called, The Best Friend Mentality. As I read it, I realized just how important that label had been to her. It had affected her life more than I’d even realized. Just that tiny little phrase, which is so flippantly used by girls today (young and old alike), had rocked her world. It had been such a challenge in her life that she felt she must write out her feelings – share what she had learned. It was from a young person’s first-hand account of being, having, and wishing to be a “best friend”. She described this sort of friendship as a “competition” and said this in her paper, “…this wasn’t a habit that was going to break itself. It really is difficult to shed a phrase like “best friend” once it’s been engrained in your mind. Plus, I didn’t want to give it up. After-all, I didn’t want my “closest” friend to look at me any differently just because I stopped labeling her, and I didn’t want her to go and seek a friend who would give her that label – what if that was important to her? It was going to take some hard work and determination to quit.”
Abigail also acknowledged in this paper how easy it is to begin to put friendships outside the home above those of your own siblings. Our children had always been very close, but when Abigail felt she was competing for “top friend” position, she began to demean the friendships she had developed her whole life with her siblings. It was a time when her brother took second place and her sisters were practically non-existent. We generally don’t have to compete for sibling friendship, do we? Simply put, friendship outside the home became the most consuming thing in her life.
Perhaps some of you have only experienced the beautiful side of having a best friend, and you think I’m over-exaggerating and making an issue of a non-issue. After all, Anne Shirley and Diana Barry’s friendship was every girl’s model of friendship, right? Well, I prefer what Anne said in L.M. Montgomery’s book Anne of Green Gables when she wanted a friend so desperately. She said, “It would be best to have a beautiful bosom friend”. I like that better because, after all, you can have more than one of those!
If you’re honest, you’ll admit to feeling a little put out, even sometimes as an adult, when hearing someone you are close to say, “We’ve been best friends for years” (referring to someone else), or upon meeting someone and hearing them say, “____ is my best friend”. It’s like saying, there might be room for you, but that top position is already taken – like you’ll never get in that close. As a young girl, those situations devastated me. It’s hard to want to spill your heart and trust people who put limits on your friendship before it even begins. I’ll admit it doesn’t bother me these days. My life is so full of people I love I don’t feel I really need more (although I’m willing to accept more). However, young people are in a different place in life and we as mothers, need to protect our daughters from falling into this trap, either by being the one hurt or by being the one who unintentionally hurts others.
I know this goes against America’s cultural norm (in a world of “BFF”), but it is a cultural norm that has no scriptural foundation. There are movies and books that flaunt the phrase “best friend”. It has such a warm, embracing appeal when you see it in a movie or read of it in a book, but the media rarely shows the other side, because most people don’t want to admit that they’ve been hurt by being on the outside of a “best” friendship.
Why is it that we can’t love people and simply show them how much? Haven’t we been taught that actions speak louder than words? If there’s someone in our life who is dear to us, who has earned a special place in our heart, why do we feel we must call them “best”? The words, ”dear”, “special”, “precious”, “loved”, and “close”, are all ones which elevate the one we love to a high place but don’t exclude others. “Best” means “on top”.
I believe we can call our Lord our best friend because he shows no favoritism and he truly is “on top”. I also don’t believe there’s much danger in referring to our spouses’ or siblings as our best friends because they not only expect to be each others’ best friends, but others’ expect it to, and there doesn’t seem to be hurt involved by those outside of the family. Most siblings don’t refer to each other as their best friends though, they just ‘are’. However, to call someone outside of our home our best friend does create a sort of competition and I believe that’s where the hurt is involved.
I haven’t used the term “best friend” in years, at least not outside of referring to my husband, or referring to sibling friendships (“they’re the best of friends”), and you know what I (and Abigail) have discovered? Nothing changes. My friends are all still my friends. The ones closest to me, are still close to me. Shedding the label didn’t shed the friendship. True friends will remain true, because after all friendships are built on more than labels. They are built on love, trust, service, and faithfulness – and of course, some hearty fun too!