‘Billy No Mates’: the new role model

Some UK schools are banning ‘best friends’ to spare children the heartbreak of falling out. Bad move.

Dennis Hayes

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Will Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer soon be banned from school libraries in England? Not because it contains the word ‘nigger’, which has led it to be censored in some US schools, but because it contains a heinous example of young boys being best mates.

In some English schools, having best friends can now get you in serious trouble with teacher. At the weekend, it was reported that primary school children in certain areas are being discouraged from having best friends to avoid the ‘pain of falling out’. Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist working with schools in south-west London, told The Sunday Times, ‘I have noticed that teachers tell children they shouldn’t have a best friend and that everyone should play together… They’re doing it because they want to save the child the pain of splitting up from their best friend.’ Sbuttoni is not the first to speak out against this trend in the UK, and ‘no best friend’ policies have been in place in some US schools for quite a while.

Reading the reports, it might seem like this is just a silly intervention by meddling teachers, which simply needs to be stamped out. But that underestimates what is going on in our schools. The teaching profession is being reformed as a therapeutic profession, often prioritising the delivery of therapy over education to ‘vulnerable’ children and young people. As this new therapeutic profession develops, more and more interventions like ‘no best friends’ will arise, either spontaneously in classrooms or as a result of conscious intervention by school heads, local authorities, government and, of course, Ofsted, which runs with every fad and fashion.

Meddling in young children’s emotional lives is the worst feature of contemporary schooling. Children are now trained to have ‘appropriate’ emotions through emotional literacy classes and so-called subjects like SEAL – the ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’. The training on offer in such sessions is nothing short of emotional manipulation. Children are taught to be moderate; empathy is good, anger is bad. They are taught to be emotionally dead, out of touch with all the emotions that make up human relationships, passion, anger, jealousy, hatred and even love, which is sentimentalised and sanitised. This is the anodyne therapeutic ethos that now dominates education at all levels.

The excuse given by advocates is that this is all done in the name of protecting children from harmful emotions and emotional relationships. Here’s an example that shows just how manipulative this concern with emotional literacy can be. A friend’s daughter told her that she didn’t like SEAL, but she understood that ‘some of the children in my class have problems with anger management’. She is nine years old and worryingly in danger of becoming an emotional police officer.

These emotional interventions are well meant, but their impact is a dysfunctional one. They create ‘can’t cope’ kids. In this way, teachers are in fact creating the situation that they fear – that kids won’t be able to cope with falling-out, not only with best friends at school but with other friends later in life and then perhaps with girl- or boyfriends. Keeping children together in emotionally safe packs where no one gets too close to anyone else is scary, like something from Brave New World.

Despite the negative effects, teachers adopting therapeutic approaches, expressing concern with emotional literacy, emotional intelligence and emotional wellbeing, will often find they are lauded by parents, schools and local authorities. Schools promoting such therapeutic initiatives can be rewarded with better funding and increased status. This may seem a cynical view, but there is an explanation for it. As teachers have given up their commitment to teaching the traditional subjects, all sorts of fads and fashions have filled the vacuum. The emotional meddling that many of these initiatives involve has an added advantage for teacher and pupils when there is nothing being taught or learnt. The assumption is that children are the best authorities on what they feel. No need to teach them anything!

In the past, children learned their emotional sensitivity and robustness not just from the playground and friends, but also from literature. Poetry, plays and novels teach a range of emotions and feelings that go far beyond the limited and often vulgar interactions of the playground. As their immersion in literature has diminished, children are instead taught lists of ‘appropriate’ feelings. What hope have they of experiencing the higher emotions, those once induced by art and literature?

Many of the best-friend models that we encounter in literature would be damned as ‘inappropriate’ today. Christopher Robin and Pooh; Tom Saywer, Jim and Huck Finn; Iago and Othello; Macbeth and his Lady – all of these relationships have qualities that make them eternal and yet ban-happy teachers would probably find them objectionable.

In the past, therapeutic interventions at school were often about helping Billy or Sarah ‘No Mates’. These were sometimes effective, helping lonely and sad children to get a best friend. Now it seems that for some emotionally meddling teachers, Billy and Sarah No Mates are becoming the ideal role models for all our children.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and a visiting professor in the Westminster Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes University.

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