Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Buddy Bench

"Play makes us nimble -- neurobiologically, mentally, behaviorally -- capable of adapting to a rapidly evolving world."
~Hara Estroff Marano: A Nation of Wimps


     I've heard discussions about something called the Buddy Bench. These are benches for children to sit on when they don't have any friends to play with. Sitting on this bench is a cue for other children to invite this child to play. There are probably some nuances to the Buddy Bench I'm missing, but this is the basic principle. For more information, please check out the Buddy Bench website. The vision around the Buddy Bench is fantastic. Growing up, I experienced severe bullying and exclusion. Inclusion and friendship are great goals and we should be intentionally providing ways to encourage these behaviors in children. We should also be teaching them to adults! However, I believe the Buddy Bench potentially does more harm than good. Existentially, there are a few reasons this is a bad idea, and I'd like to recommend some alternatives.
     In A Nation of Wimps, Marano claims that parental over-involvement serves to undermine children's confidence by weakening their psychological resiliency. Maranos' research based book illustrates the risk of removing reciprocity from relationship (Buber). I will suggest why the Buddy Bench may inadvertently subvert the very ideals it seeks to encourage. Then, I will suggest a more difficult and authentic response to encourage children, and adults, to engage in healthy social relationship.

The Problem

    The primary issue I have with this idea is that it puts the onus of relationship almost entirely on the "other". It does so through passive, rather than active/assertive communication. Sitting on the bench is making a statement without making a request. This is passive-aggressive communication 101. For example: if someone comes to your house, is sitting down to dinner with everyone, and made the statement, "It sure is hot in here...", it may be a natural response to turn on a fan, open a window, turn down the AC, apologize for the unseasonably warm weather, or simply agree with them! However, the person making that statement has avoided vulnerability by making a request. Instead of asking if they could turn the AC cooler and risk being told, "No" (a rejection), they can use manipulative statements in an attempt to elicit a behavioral response from someone else.
     The more adept someone is at reading body language, subtle context clues, and implications, the better they will be at accidentally enabling others to continue using passive-aggressive speech. This prevents people from creating actual trust in others, because there's no vulnerability. Without risking rejection, there can be no trust because no one has had the opportunity to let you down or hurt you!
     You may be saying, "Hey, Nathan! You don't think sitting on a Buddy Bench is an act of vulnerability? You're crazy!" Well, you may not be wrong about that last part, but here's the issue: Sitting on a Buddy Bench automatically shifts the responsibility of connection from self, to others. It is a clear signal of needing support or relationship, but it is a request without risk. Even when the bench works, it doesn't work, because the child will not know if they have a relationship with another child out of social obligation or due to their own personality, choices, and skills.

The Alternative

     Bullying is not acceptable. Bullying is meaningless, destructive, hurtful, and unhelpful. Anything I suggest from here on out should, in no way, be construed to imply that bullying is useful or healthy. And, just because a child is struggling with friendships/relationship, does not necessarily mean they are being bullied. It's important to look at the context within which the isolation is occurring. If it's primarily one or two children, then it's likely bullying. If the child has almost no friends and is conflict with most other children, then it's likely the child themselves is the issue.
     The response should not be to request the rest of the world to change to accommodate a lack of social skills/social understanding in one child. If this was the expectation, then it would stand to reason that we should all change in order to acquiesce to the requests of bullies! There are societal expectations and norms. They are not always fair, but they exist. Children are particularly skilled at punishing undesirable social behaviors. There are healthy ways for children (and adults) to learn to adjust their behavior to be more acceptable.
     I am not suggesting we should "go with the crowd". There should be a sense of self that modulates all interpersonal and intrapersonal behavioral choices. But it is difficult to establish a sense of self by externalizing the locus of control in relationship creation. The better alternative would be to teach social skills in schools. Provide training to educators and administrators about how they can foster resilience in children. Resilience does not come without a certain amount of stress and discomfort. Having faith that our children are capable of learning new and better ways to interact and express themselves is a more difficult and time consuming route, but it is far healthier than a buddy bench.


Buddy Bench
Buddy Bench
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2016