I came across my high school yearbook the other day and couldn’t help pouring through the pages and reading the words friends from my past wrote to me. Majority of friends wrote things like, “Let’s keep in touch,” and, “Friends forever,” and “I’ll never forget…,” which was followed by a litany of memories that today, I have absolutely no memory of.
Heck! Many of the people I was hard pressed to remember them at all!
Why do we become friends with some and not with others? Why do some friendships stand the test of time yet most do not?
As I refer back to my college psychology classes, John Bowlby, a researcher from the mid 20th century would say it all goes back to how we “attached” to our main caregivers (our parents) during infancy. His attachment theory stated it was a survival mechanism. Bowlby’s thinking was how we attach to our parents during the first few years of life determines how all of our relationships throughout life will be.
And failure to properly attach was detrimental, with consequences like delinquency, reduced intelligence, anger, and an inability to show affection toward others.
As we moved into the present century, more in-depth research and study has been done. While there’s something to be said for the importance of infant-parent attachment, in that the relationship with the parent can be affected by how we attach within those first few years, having that “vital” period doesn’t play near as big of role on the outcome of our future relationships with others.
During the time Bowlby’s theory was becoming a thing, there was Jane Elliot. Ever heard of her? Neither had I (until I learned about her in a college psychology class), but what she was able to accomplish in the way of making friends and losing judgment, is nothing short of amazing.
The Story of Jane Elliot
Jane Elliot, a third grade teacher from a small town in Iowa, in my mind, made history with her teaching and all of us would do very well to learn more about her work.
It was a spring morning in April, 1968, which could have gone on like other normal day as Mrs. Elliot’s students came to class. But this wasn’t just any April morning. It happened to be the morning after Martin Luther King was assassinated. With much thought and trepidation, Jane chose to completely toss the days lessons aside. As a matter of fact, she tossed the next several days of lesson plans aside. Little did she know her students of an all white community would learn a lesson they’d remember for the rest of their lives and it completely altered the direction Jane Elliot would take throughout the rest of her life.
Overnight, Jane had devised a plan to teach her students about race, about diversity and about judgement, about friendship, as well as self esteem. Sounds pretty amazing, right? Her experiment was eventually dubbed “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes.”
Immediately, when the first school bell rang out, Jane was separating her class in two. On one side of the room were the brown eyed students and on the other were the blue. She had neckwear, collars for one side of the room to wear for the next several days. She told her class that from that point forward, everyone with blue eyes were bad people. They weren’t to be trusted. The brown eyed and blue eyed students weren’t allowed to play together or even communicate with each other. She even went so far as to tell the brown eyed students that the blue eyed children were inferior and stupid and to really hit it home, the blue eyed students weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain. Sound familiar?
Mrs. Elliot played this to the hilt. When she was doing small group lessons with a mixture of brown and blue eyed students, she went so far as to tell the blue eyed students they were wrong, even if they were right. After several days passed, the rolls were reversed and suddenly the brown eyed children were the inferior ones. Eventually, all of the classroom had “played” both rolls.
The experiment has a whole lot more to it than this, but what the children came out of it learning was they were all very quick to jump on the bandwagon and belittle the “inferior” students. The inferior students grade average plummeted during this time frame.
But one thing is for sure, this experiment was a big example of how negativity can be detrimental to social relationships.
Help Your Kids Create Lasting Relationships
How can we, as parents, teach our children about judgement, racism and self esteem? It turns out one of the most important roles we play is to be good role models. The old saying, “children are like sponges,” is actually truer than we might think.
As it turns out, young children actually do have more neurons making connections in their brains than they will have when they start becoming teens. As it turns out, children really do learn much more by our actions than by our words.
Teaching our little ones to be a good friend and how to talk to others starts with us. For example, we want our children to be open and honest with us, but in order for that to happen, we need to practice what we preach, walk the walk, talk the talk, so to speak. It’s important for us to create an environment where we’re able to share how we’re feeling and our experiences (within reason and age appropriate) with our kids.
It turns out, one of the most important aspects in making friends is being able to make ourselves just a little bit vulnerable, to share some of our self with someone else. Perhaps we have a different opinion than the one our friend just shared with us… Do we tell them we feel the same way so they won’t think bad of us? Or do we take that chance and voice our differences and risk them not liking us because of it?
Even as adults, the same thing still applies. It’s those people who listen to our differences and like us anyway who we become closest to. That skill of “listening” is also one of the most important aspects of creating lasting friendships. Many people don’t actually know how to “listen.” They know how to “hear.” What’s the difference, you may ask? Well, listening actually takes conscious practice (In my life coach training, many weeks were devoted to the art of listening).
You see, most people hear what they’re friends are saying trying to find a spot in the conversation to interject our own comments. At the very point where something our friend is saying sparks a comment we want to interject and we hold onto that thought until we can find a break in the conversation… We’ve actually stopped listening. Listening is about being present in each moment as we listen and speak to others.
Lastly, from my experiences, I’d have to say the next most important aspect of being a friend is curiosity. So this is how it works… We have to put ourselves “out there.” Take a chance. Be vulnerable. And listen for your friend as they share their vulnerabilities with you. The act of “listening” allows us to remember our friend’s vulnerabilities and curiosity helps us to ask our friend in future conversations about how the vulnerable experience is progressing in their life.
Unfortunately, throughout life, friendships come and friendships go. Sometimes they go due to a change of location, a change in job, a broken confidentiality. Just like any good relationship, friendship takes time, empathy, curiosity and responsiveness.
And if you’re very lucky, you’ll have a small handful of very close friends who stand the test of time.