When my daughter was invited to a slumber birthday party in the fall of her kindergarten year, I found myself shaking in my boots. Yes, she'd slept away before, at my parents' house and at the home of close friends. But she'd never slept away with a group of girls -- five were invited to this party -- and at the home of a family I didn't know well.
In my gut and in my rational mind, I knew it was OK. Her friends were easy-going, and I liked both parents. And, perhaps most important, my daughter was eager to go. Still, I was all nerves. "You can call any time you want," I told her as she packed her pajamas, her stuffed bear, and a Judy Moody book.
Ann Douglas, author of several books including The Mother of All Parenting Books: The Ultimate Guide to Raising a Happy, Healthy Child From Preschool Through the Preteens, says my anxiety was normal. "This is your very precious child," Douglas says. "On a sleepover, the child is out of your sight and out of your control."
Raising Independent Children
Much of parenting is a process of letting go, Douglas says, allowing children to take and succeed at new steps toward independence. "You're giving the child the freedom of making the leap and trying something new. What we're supposed to be doing as parents is let them take risks, safe risks."
Douglas says each sleepover is different, as is each child. There are no hard and fast rules about age, for example. Although some 5-year-olds might be ready to sleep away from home, some 10-year-olds might not be. So it's important for parents to assess each event individually. How many kids will be there? Who are the kids? Who else will be in the house? Where will they be sleeping? How able is your child to ask for what he or she needs?
Douglas, a mother of four, says vigilance is key. "I've had parents ask really tough questions when I'm having a sleepover, and I've had parents say, 'I want to meet you ahead of time.'" If you don't know the family, it's not a bad idea to have a cup of coffee together. It'll help everyone feel comfortable. "You're vetting the situation," she says.
Smart Sleepover Strategies
Once you feel comfortable with the sleepover, give your child the skills she needs to feel secure, Douglas says. Tell her it's OK to call – or come home. "All parents should expect that if their child is upset in the night they'll call," she says. "I would hate to know [afterward] that my child cried all night and no one called me. I'm used to losing sleep; I'm a parent." But be sure they know it's ok to go. "You can't have your children sleeping on your floor when they're 18 so you can pat their little head at night," Douglas says. "They have to leave the nest."
After my daughter's first sleepover, I was glad to hear she had put herself to sleep several hours earlier than the other girls. "She said she was tired and was going to sleep," the other mom told me. My daughter had figured out what she needed without me there to help her. A success.
The end goal is the future: "When your children are older, and they're making the decision whether to accept a ride home from a friend they've accepted every other time, but this time the friend is drunk, you want them to say no," Douglas says.