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Is Your Child a Third Wheel?

How To Ensure Everyone Is Included In Activities

The old saying, "two's company, three's a crowd," often rings true when it comes to kids playing. As parents of children, many of us have seen the results of a crowded threesome -- one child sadly playing on her own while two others pair up. We have heard the cries of the lone child and can actually feel the pain in our own hearts.

"It is a natural instinct to want to 'pair together' at any age and as a consequence, the third person is often left out," says Lisa Dunning, a marriage and family therapist in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Dunning says one child will often feel left out or ganged up on and that this is not only an issue for children, but occurs with adults as well.

Perhaps the situation seems so apparent with children because adults are mature enough to handle a pairing-up situation. When this happens amongst adults, there are no tears or complaints of "nobody likes me." Also, adults are more observant of the feelings of others around them and will make an effort to include everyone in conversations and activities, Dunning says.

A Third Wheel?

Doretta Thompson, an Ontario, Canada mother of two, says her personal observation is that it is more common for two girls to be at odds with a third female playmate than for a group of three boys or a mixed group of girls and boys.

"Three boys has never been a problem, or two boys and a girl, or even a boy and two girls," Thompson says. In some situations, gender as well as temperament may determine how well three children can blend together.

Carrie Smith, from Landaff, N.H., has a nephew who is between the ages of her two oldest sons, but closer in age to the oldest who tends to be the preferred playmate.

"Consequently, due to the age and their personalities, they end up playing more together, and my second ends up being the third wheel," Smith says.

She said she finds that having a friend over for her second-born son works well when her nephew visits.

Smith is not the only mother who has found that four is a magic number.

"What's worked best for us is to have a friend for both of my children and amazingly, the two groups tend not to play together," says Trina Lambert, a mother of 7-year-old boy/girl twins in Englewood, Colo.

Inviting a fourth child over to play when three's a crowd provides two pairs of playmates and everyone is happy, she says.

A Parent's Role

Lisa Beamer from Pennsylvania is the mother of both a son and daughter. She says she has noticed that when her neighbor's grandson is in town for a visit, he comes over to play with her son. This leaves her daughter out in the cold, not because her son forgets about her, but because the visiting child doesn't want to be bothered with her. Beamer's son and daughter are constant playmates and she feels bad when this happens.

"I keep a close eye on the boys to make sure they aren't doing anything that may hurt my daughter if she is tagging along," she says.

Should observant parents let children work out their own problems with pairing?

"When left alone, children lack the maturity to recognize pairing and will naturally exclude others," says Dunning. "One way a parent can encourage their child not to exclude others is to find activities that involve all children equally. A few examples can be jump rope, a board game and arts and crafts. The ultimate goal is for children to include others without adult supervision."

Dunning says that pairing is not a stage of development but rather a natural human instinct.

"Encouraging your child to include others at an early age will teach them how to share, communicate and work together as a team, which are all necessary tools to develop positive relationships," she says.

Shellie Hurrie of Beaverton, Ore. is a mother who has successfully come to the rescue of an excluded child.

"I sometimes take the 'leftover' child off with me to do something fun. Inevitably, the other two would wander over to see what we were doing. Then, I'd get those two involved and ease myself out of the picture when I could," she says.

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