Q: My 7-year-old daughter has had two girls in her class for the past couple of years. The girls' moms are friends, so the two spend a lot of time together and are super tight. My daughter is often seated next to one of the girls in class, and my daughter adores her and says she's her best friend to the point of being almost worshipful. The problem, however, is I think the other two girls only have eyes for each other. My daughter has begged me to send messages to the girl she's often seated next to after the girl said something about using services such as Snapchat and Messenger Kids. Those messages are always ignored, but I don't know whether it's because they are intercepted by the girl's mom and are never delivered, or because the child herself is indifferent. I am fearful that my daughter is going to get really hurt here. I try to talk to her about other kids in her class in the hopes that she'll redirect her energy. Once, after she told me the girl was her best friend, I went so far as to gently ask if she thought she was the girl's best friend. I just want her to want to be friends with someone who wants to be friends with her. What can I do?

A: What can you do? That’s easy: Nothing. Thanks for writing in!

No, but seriously, friendship triangles have always existed, and they rarely end well, especially when the kids are 7 years old. What you have is a mix of two elements that don’t work in your daughter’s favor. The first, as I mentioned, is that friendship triangles are tough to maintain without someone feeling left out all the time. The second reason these friendships don’t bode well is due to the developmental norms of 7-year-olds.

Seven is often considered “the age of reason,” which means that, developmentally, you see signs of maturity in children, such as: the ability to wait for long periods of time for something they want; understanding someone else’s perspective; having more empathy; the ability to spend more time away from their close attachments; and being able to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time.

This sounds lovely, except people don’t develop according to schedules, so this maturity may come earlier, it may come later, or, in some cases, it may not come at all. (We all know adults who act like children.) Now, let’s take a group of 7-year-olds in a friendship triangle, throw in some burgeoning maturity, a dash of Snapchat and Messenger Kids, and poof! Hurt feelings abound.

You are fearful that your daughter will get hurt, so I am here to tell you that yes, she will. There’s almost nothing you can do about that. Not to be too theoretical, but it is not our parental job to prevent our children from experiencing all emotional pain. It is our job to protect them when necessary, but, more importantly, it’s our job to strengthen their character, so they can cry, then persevere. By providing a consistently loving and safe home, you are building the net that catches your children when they fall. And we all fall.

So do not orchestrate these friendships from home. When you do this, you stoop to the children’s level, and yes, it is beneath you. Instead, focus on listening to your daughter when she complains, and ask thoughtful questions, such as: “How do you think friends should treat each other?” Watch movies or read books that have examples of both good and bad friendships, and allow it all to sink in. Don’t lecture or push a message; just let it feel easy.

Also, cultivate other relationships in your daughter’s life. I know our culture is obsessed with same-age play dates with virtual strangers, but I would instead encourage time with family or friends who are like family. Encourage multi-age children to be together, and be sure to enjoy time with the other adults. Why? Because there is too much attention here on your 7-year-old and her friendships. Put this on the back burner, and get busy living in your family, with people you love. Even inviting other families over (in a pandemic-safe way) so everyone can hang out promotes community and more emotional safety for 7-year-olds. It is here that watchful eyes and ears can ascertain that there is kindness and respect among the children.

Your daughter faces a future in which she will undoubtedly be hurt; that is the price we pay for our beautiful humanity. If you try to stop or manage too much of it, you will rob her of the needed experiences that teach her how a friend should be. You will rob her of her autonomy and agency, and you may increase your own controllingness and fear. So, move forward from these girls; if you proceed with confidence, your daughter will follow your lead. Good luck.

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