SUNDAY TIMES - Sleepovers need not be a nightmare - and help kids to be autonomous in a safe environment,,
Sunday Times STLive By Judith Ancer , 2012-06-10

Sleepovers need not be a nightmare - and help kids to be autonomous in a safe environment


Whether they're in their 20s or 50s, parents need to deal with this rite of passage in a mature way

It's 2am and out of the blackness of sleep something materialises in my room. It's at my elbow, shaking me awake. I grope through the mist, trying to catch up to my racing heart. It's my son's eight-year-old friend, sleeping over for the first time. He can't sleep. So neither can I.

The sleepover, or its Americanised girlie version, the slumber party, is one of the modern rituals of childhood. Children and teenagers beg parents to allow them to host or attend sleepovers, with the promise of pillow fights and midnight feasts, the tests of ghost stories and truth or dare.

What can go wrong? Well for starters: imagine a giggling gaggle of hyped-up tweens and teens, transforming into squabbling, sleep-deprived, grumpy monsters ruining the rest of your family weekend.

Other parents have darker imaginations, depending on what they've read in the newspaper or which stories they've heard that week. Pornography, paedophiles, sex, drugs, alcohol or neglectful parents, take your pick.

Sleepovers are a rite of passage, a plunge into deeper waters. Whether you host one or send your child to someone else's, you might feel as if your child is not ready.

For some parents, the shallow end of life is a much safer place to be. I understand this. I understand it completely.

When my son packed his things to stay over at his best friend's, I smiled encouragingly through the lump in my throat as he left home for his first night out. He dragged a huge bag behind him, walking innocently forward. I trusted the hosting family, but not chance - the possibility of some violent intrusion into their home, some horrible, random stroke of fate that I should be there to experience with him.

If you think I'm bad, try my husband. "What if a small rusting bit of a satellite breaks off, falls a few thousand kilometres and hits their house?" he asked, only half-joking.

Unsurprisingly, our son survived. There was no act of God or shift in the Earth's crust. I'd just forgotten about his sleepwalking, of course, a habit he'd recently started and which we had yet to understand properly.

I was probably sleeping fitfully when he fell out of the top bunk of his friend's bunk bed in the middle of the night, crashing onto the carpet, where his friend's mother found him a few seconds later, sleeping peacefully.

My son was seven years old at the time, but what is the correct age for sleepovers? There is no right time, of course. Some parents will be in their early 20s, others in their 50s - they just have to deal with it as maturely as possible.

Parents might refuse to allow their child a sleepover at a friend because of safety concerns and the fear of something going wrong, or just because they have different attitudes, values and parenting styles to those of the hosts.

Equally, not all children want to sleep out. Sometimes it's the parents dying for a child-free Saturday night, but their child says no.

Properly planned and supervised sleepovers are a fantastic way for children to consolidate friendships, expand their horizons and learn about how other families live. It helps children practise being flexible and autonomous within safe boundaries. It also helps parents practise letting go.

Some tips:

  • Make sure you know the family where your child will be spending the night. You should also ask what level of parent supervision will be provided, and which other children might be sleeping over. And if you feel uncomfortable, you can say no;
  • If you host a sleepover, be vigilant, be responsible, keep them short, and don't have too many kids over to sleep at one time. Remember Lord of the Flies?
  • Don't schedule sleepovers for every weekend, or they lose their specialness and also start compromising family time and other activities;
  • Children should never be pressurised into sleeping over if they feel unsafe or uncertain;
  • If they would like to go but are nervous, put a plan in place that allows for you to make contact with your children and the host family, say good night and, if necessary, make a plan allowing them to come home if their anxiety gets the better of them;
  • Avoid a pattern of your child asking if he can sleep out, and then always phoning you in the middle of the night to be fetched. If this is happening, then your child is not ready for sleepovers - take a break and try again in a few months' time; and
  • For anxious parents of younger children, consider something I read about, which is "sleepunders", "halfovers", or "late nights". The children go off in their pyjamas, take junk food, play all the games they want, but at a certain point are fetched and tucked in under their own roof, where their parents can feel safe.

The author Elizabeth Stone wrote: "Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."

And sleepovers, the precursors to leaving home, allow your heart to brave some tentative baby steps.