We Shall Race To The Place We Get Out Of The Playground: On Children and the Unbearable Lightness of Friendship

February 22, 2013

Dear Beatrix,

Do you know I’m your bestest bestest friend? I hope we can have another play date or even have a sleepover. I hope we have fun at school today. Should we have a sleepover at my house or your house? Maybe at the sleepover we can watch a movie.

Maybe you and me can have a race outside today. We will race from the place where we line up to go into the playground to the place we get out of the playground. I will say “on your mark, get set, go!” and whoever wins will get my special treat.

I hope we can play together outside besides the race, like hide and seek or hopscotch. I hope we can get together and play. Maybe even sleepover for two nights and I can come to school with you.



Emilia wrote this letter, last night. It’s to her best friend, Beatrix. She labored over all of the words – on a keyboard, because she wanted it ‘to look important’ – asking for help with ‘the spellings’ and making sure that she said everything that she needed to say and that she got every word just right. Because she wanted it to be special, for Beatrix.

I’ve read it a dozen times now if I’ve read it once, and every time, I cry. I cry because her love for Beatrix is so simple and so deeply felt. I cry because her experience of friendship is so pure. I cry because, oh, to have the heart of a seven year old.

Oh, to view life through the lens of questions like, when shall we play? Where shall we race? Who shall bring the treats?



Aristotle distinguished between three forms of friendship, or rather, three bases of friendship: friendship based on utility, friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on good, or virtue. In the first case, friends love one another for what they can do or provide for one another, in terms of what is good for themselves; in the second, friends love one another for the pleasure that they bring to each other, based on what is pleasant for themselves. In both, the love is self-facing; the measure of what is good is one’s personal experience – what is good for oneself.

But in the third form of friendship, in what Aristotle calls ‘complete friendship’ – friendship based on the good, fully understood – that friendship is for the sake of the good in itself. That is, it’s a friendship in which friends love one another for the good that they bring each other, in terms of the complete good. Not what is usefully good for themselves, or pleasurable good for themselves (although this third form of friendship does contain these things), but what is truly good for each other. It is friendship “between people who are good and are alike in virtue, since they wish for good things one for another in the same way insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves” (Nichomachean Ethics, Sachs transl.) It is friendship between good people, wishing good for each other, and achieving happiness in that good.

Children, obviously, can’t wholly orient themselves to the good (classically understood), because they’re not intellectually mature enough to understand, in any reflective sense, the concept of the good-in-itself. But I think that they do have a sub-reflective, emotional understanding of that good, and so in their friendships – however fleeting, however juvenile – live out a very raw, very roughly immanent experience of good-in-itself, and so experience a very simple form of complete friendship, one that is some ways more pure for being sub-reflective, if less perfect – in the Aristotelean sense – for that sub-reflectivity. It is the friendship of just wishing to run and play, of wishing to be near to each other, of wishing to bring joy to one another, of wishing to experience joy together.

It is a friendship that is so hard to experience in adulthood, at least in modern adulthood, or adulthood in the condition of modernity, wherein we are so very concerned with utility and pleasure. Wherein some friendships are deep but fleeting, and others are shallow but long-lived. It is tempting to say something about how this has worsened in the age of the Internet, during which time friendship has yielded to ‘friending’, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is true. I’ve received much comfort and support from my online friendships; more importantly (because ‘comfort and support’ might be regarded as matters of utility, as self-facing goods), they have been sources of the kind of unrestrained joy that my daughter seems to experience with her friends (we play, we race, we share our treats.) Again, these might be regarded as self-facing goods – aren’t these just different forms of pleasure? – but I prefer to think of this as joyful in the purest sense, in the sense of the experience that extends out beyond one’s self (that is only fully felt if it extends beyond one’s self.) All of which is to say – putting aside the meat of the argument for another time – that I have experienced what I think is something close to complete friendship online. But it’s still virtual friendship, for the most part, which means that the sleepovers and playground races and hopscotch tournaments – or their grown-up equivalents – are thin on the ground.

Our day-to-day relationships are more likely to be utilitarian than they are to be friendships based on a shared experience of the Good, or even just a shared investment in one another’s joy (if these are, in fact, different things.) Which isn’t to say that they’re not of value, just that they don’t lift the heart and the soul. We need to have our souls elevated. We need to lean toward happiness in the fullest sense, the Aristotelean sense, in the sense of eudaimonia, or wellness of spirit. We need to strive toward complete friendships, wherever we might find them. We need to find and keep those friends, and let those friends know that they are such friends (did you know that you are my bestest bestest friend?)* and then challenge them to races, at the end of which are treats.

Or maybe, sometimes, we just need a hug. I probably just need a hug.

(*you know who you are, all of you. Thank you for being you.)

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    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    Korinthia Klein February 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    This is a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing it.


    Jeannette February 24, 2013 at 11:37 am

    I know you need a hug, so again I am sending you one. Maybe there’s a special type of friendship that just relies on the ability to share those hugs…
    I really loved this post. We do need to have our souls elevated. May I soon see you again so I can challenge you to a race. You will win since I suck at running but it doesn’t matter if we can enjoy the treats later.


    Suzanne February 25, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I think if Aristotle were alive today, he’d add a fourth form of friendship: virtual friends. Online friendships can be a liberation from the utilitarian nature of physical friendships, and therefore can go deep fast. Sure, I am a happier person for the friendships I have with my neighbors. We cook meals for each others families; watch each others kids. This is great. But with my online friends, we watch each other’s emotions and ambitions; we share secrets without the fear they may be betrayed to mutual friends. Friendship takes many, many forms, and I embrace them all. “However deep our devotion may be to our parents, or to children, it is our contemporaries alone with whom understanding is instinctive and entire.” Vera Brittain


    Ami Church March 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    It made me cry too. Let Emilia know that I’m available and willing to be second best friend xo


    Christina Bell March 3, 2013 at 9:12 am

    It’s interesting to watch the friendships of children. So many of their friendships are sort of ‘arranged’ because their parents are friends or colleagues. This year, my daughter has made her first best friend who she chose completely on her own. Watching them spend time together is a pure joy. There’s no bickering or tattling.They are totally happy when they are together. They listen to each other and take care of each other. I’m almost jealous of their harmony. It makes me think that if a child of six can choose a friend so instinctively, there must be some level of instinct or intuition involved.


    Colin S. Carpenter June 22, 2013 at 12:01 am

    The scenario is common. You meet people you can relate to. This person seems to intricately understand who you are, and you become fast friends. Occasionally, when friends have shared time and experience, they begin to feel enamored with one another. This is why the labels of love and friendship are important. Confusing romantic love with friendship may result in hurt feelings, and the end of a meaningful relationship. Neglect these amorous feelings, and an opportunity for true love may be lost. Thankfully, there are clues that help us sort out ambiguous feelings of love and friendship.


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