Q. Our daughter is almost 8 and very popular at school.

Unlike many of her classmates, however, she does not have a best friend. Is that par for the age? Some of her friends' parents seem to think that a "best friend" is important.

My wife and I don't know whether they're right or not and we also don't know whether we should decide which playmates she can have. My wife wants to veto girls who are too aggressive, needy, noisy or have bad manners but I disagree. I think my daughter should be able to control her choice of playmates, within reason, and should be exposed to a wide variety of personalities.

Is there a preferred approach?

A. Both you and your wife are correct.

You have the right--and the duty--to check out any friends your child makes, since the wrong friends can lead children astray. But you should also encourage your daughter to have a broad assortment of friends. It takes years of practice to judge people well and she will never get that practice unless she spends time with children whose family incomes, education, religions and personalities are different from her own. The child who knows many children will define herself best.

Whether your daughter has many friends or not, however, she's still the only one who can decide how many she wants and who they should be. Sometimes a schoolchild only wants a best friend and no one else and that's fine, although it can be tough to find a new one if that friend moves away. But most children--particularly girls--want four to five close friends. Out of this lot they usually choose one of them to be The Best Friend--and then another and another, for best friends often change with the seasons when a child is 8 or 9 and even older.

Whatever the pattern, a child chooses friends who share her interests, temperament and behavior because children pick friends who seem most like themselves. For this reason, the happy, confident youngster usually chooses positive, outgoing friends, while the child who is frequently criticized and discouraged at home may pick friends who are querulous, downbeat or sassy.

Even the happiest child may choose the wrong friends sometimes, but don't worry. Their occasional play dates won't hurt your daughter as long as they happen at your house.

It's easy for parents to make mistakes, too. A nice, obedient youngster can be impudent and cross sometimes or act up if she's going through a rough patch at home, so judge your daughter's friends carefully, fairly and respectfully. The friend who seems like a poor choice may turn out to be a good one, since children often see gold beneath an overlay of bad habits and bad manners.

When you decide that your daughter should avoid a certain friend, be honest. Tell her that you don't want the two of them to spend much time together because they bring out the worst in each other, but don't denigrate her pal. If you do, you will turn the play date issue into a war game that could hurt your relationship with your daughter and undercut the confidence she must develop in her own judgment.

Simply make your point once and then make it inconvenient for your daughter to have play dates with that child.

You'll find some great information on friendship--and much, much more--in "Caring for Your School-Age Child," produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics and edited by Edward L. Schor (Bantam; $17.95).

Please send your questions to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003 or to margukelly@aol.com