My youngest daughter, Flora, 7, gets along great with her neighborhood friend, Audrey. When a third friend joins them, I grit my teeth. I know I have about half an hour of peace before I hear "That's not fair!", "I don't want to play that!" or the ultimate playdate killer: "You guys are not my friends!"
Compared with just two pals playing together or a larger group of kids, a threesome is much more complex, dramatic, and prone to conflict says Parents advisor Michael Thompson, Ph.D., coauthor of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. It's especially difficult for three 7- and 8-year-olds to play well together because they probably aren't equally close to one another, and they're at an age when being left out is significant. So what's the best solution? First try to let your friends work out triple play trip-ups on their own. But when they can't, follow these expert guidelines.
Accept That Friends Aren't Created Equal
As much as you'd like to teach your kids to "be friends with everyone," that's not realistic, says Dr. Thompson. So talk with your child about being kind to the third friend -- letting him take turns choosing the game, not whispering with Friend #2 in front of the third wheel, and so on. But never insist that he "like" both friends in a triad equally or push them to always play together. One exception: within your extended family. If three cousins are stuck together at a family party and play the "two-against-one" game, it's fine to insist that they all get along for the duration of the event. If they can't, have toys on hand that they can play with separately and peacefully.
Enlarge the Group
If you're having a playdate at your house, avoid threesomes. "More kids, and an even number of them, lowers the chance of two kids ganging up against one and can decrease the fighting," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential.
Dr. Kennedy-Moore tells kids that it's not smart to be an "octopus friend." This phenomenon describes a child who smothers a friend and tries to prevent her from having other pals. "Teach your child that she can't insist that someone be friends with her," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Also, if her good friend is hanging out with someone new, she should make an effort to play with both of them or move on to someone new, as painful as that may be."
Break the Tension
Some trios play together just fine, with only a few meltdowns here and there. The simplest way to get kids back on track in that case: Change the scenery. Letting the kids run around in the backyard or come into the kitchen for a glass of water interrupts the drama.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Parents magazine.