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Explaining Friend Breakups to My Daughter

“Let’s play the game where we decide not to be friends anymore,” my daughter suggested one afternoon. I stared at her and tried to comprehend why a 4-year-old wanted to play a friendship breakup game. I couldn’t think of a reason. So, I asked her, “What makes you want to play that game?”

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My daughter reminded me that I’d recently shown her a picture of a woman she didn’t know. When she asked me who she was, I explained that she was someone I was friends with until “we decided we no longer wanted to be friends.”

I understood that my daughter’s suggestion that we play that out was her way of processing and understanding how it could be that two people (grown women!) could be friends, and then somehow decide that was no longer a good idea. She is too young to understand how wrong a friendship can go when jealousy, bitterness and misunderstandings crowd out all of the good feelings.

After all, she’s inundated with the positive messages about friendship all the time; she’s encouraged to see everyone as her friend. In her school, all the other children are called “friends,” so the idea of deciding someone is no longer a friend sounds radical to her.

I let her think of how she might break up with me, her pretend friend.

I was tempted to redirect her curiosity, but decided to go with it. Soon enough, she’ll find out that not every person she encounters is going to be “her cup of tea” and, down the road in her life, she may have valid reasons for keeping her distance from other putative “friends.” Who knows? Some of the lessons around friendship have been the hardest and most gut-wrenching lessons I’ve ever learned. Given that, I was hard-pressed to justify why it was a good idea to pretend that friendship is always simple, easy and mutual. It was precisely that idea that got me into trouble when I was younger.

So we played the game. I let her think of how she might break up with me, her pretend friend. She offered, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore because you are too bossy and we never do what I want to do.” I asked her if we could talk about it and work toward a compromise. She said no.

I explained that sometimes friendship is like that—sometimes the other person is willing to keep working and sometimes they aren’t. I was doing my best to teach her how to exit a friendship gracefully, though in the end, maybe the most important lesson is that sometimes friendships end.

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We haven’t revisited this game since that afternoon. Maybe she’s done all the processing of it that she needs to. There’s something exhilarating about looking at the dark side of something like friendship, which is universally extolled at her age. I like to think I offered her a tool or some palatable slice of reality that afternoon. Honestly, though, I’m not sure I did the right thing—but I’ll be ready if she ever wants to play the game where we pretend to be husband and wife, but decide we don’t want to be anymore.

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