Q.Our two boys, 4 and 6, are extremely close, play together nicely and seem to prefer each other's company most of all.

But they also bicker -- a lot. This is tolerable to a degree but it becomes a huge problem when I try to arrange play dates.

My older son loves to have kids from his class over to play, but the younger son becomes a pest and follows them everywhere. If they try to exclude him, it devolves into a huge battle, and if they include him he upsets the play date and it becomes a bickering nightmare.

I've tried letting both of our sons have play dates at the same time, but the 4-year-old follows the older boys around and wants nothing to do with his friend. This leaves a lonely young visitor and two frustrated older kids.

I'm really getting to dread play dates but feel terrible when I ignore my older son's desire to see his friends.

What do I do about this situation? And how do I handle this constant bickering?

A. Children bicker and little boys seem to bicker more than little girls.

It's as if they were puppies, scrambling over each other, and it doesn't mean a thing to them. But it does to you, and probably to any other adult who's around, and therefore you need to put a lid on this behavior.

But to do that, you have to figure out why your boys argue so much in the first place.

Children generally do it because they're bored or because it's become a habit, but mostly they do it to get more attention from their parents. And yet the more attention they get, the more they bicker. For this reason, you'll be much more effective if you ignore all but the most serious squabbles.

Fortunately, there are many ways to do that.

One mother asks her children, "Is anyone hurt? Is there any blood?" Since there never is, she just keeps quiet and they quickly lose interest in their argument.

Another mother says that she simply retreats to her room and shuts the door when her children start fussing with each other. Without an audience, they soon calm down.

And a third parent -- this one with five sons -- tells her boys to put on their coats and settle their differences outside. Since they live in Wisconsin, where it can get really cold, they don't get past the front door.

Work offers another good solution for testy little children.

When your two boys start fussing, give each one a job to do -- in different parts of the house and away from you as well as their toys. The 6-year-old can scrub the tub and the 4-year-old can clean the front of the refrigerator with a sponge. They should be in good form within 10 minutes or so, as long as you keep quiet. Running conversations only encourage children to bicker more.

And will they do good jobs? Of course not, but they will do them as well as a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old can do any job, and that's good enough. Just thank the boys for the work and do it over again later when they're not looking.

Play dates breed rivalry too but for different reasons. Some invite bickering if only one child comes over, because three children don't get along as well as two or four. Someone is always left out when there is an odd number of children.

Play dates also don't work out in your house, even when you let each child have a friend over at the same time, because your boys are such close friends. A 4-year-old visitor can't compete with two 6-year-olds, especially when one of them is idolized by his little brother.

It would be better to have your younger son play at a friend's house when your older son has a play date, but take him there before this child arrives. Otherwise the 4-year-old will beg to stay home with the big guys.

Don't set your expectations for your boys too high, however. All children need to bicker a little, if only to learn how to negotiate and to compromise with others.

How else are they going to learn to get along in the outside world?

If you're looking for more information on this subject, pick up a copy of "Siblings Without Rivalry" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (HarperCollins; $13). There aren't many books on bickering but there don't need to be. This classic has just about all the information you need.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.