I don’t like my kids sleeping out

Randi Olin and Lauren Apfel offer different points of view on letting their kids sleep out. You can read Lauren’s essay here

By Randi Olin

My 18-year-old daughter recently complained that I never let her have sleepovers when she was younger. “It was soooo annoying,” she added with a thick layer of teen frustration.

Her declaration is not totally off base. I’ve never tried to hide my distaste for sleepovers—that they just aren’t worth it. The lack of sleep, the-everything-that-could-go-wrong-after-hours when there isn’t enough supervision and, above all else, my discomfort with the loss of control when my kids sleep out of my own house. 

When, or if, parents allow sleepovers typically hinges on a child’s readiness but, in our family, it was clearly more about my reservations than those of my kids. When my daughter was younger, before the era of texting and cell phones, getting in touch wasn’t easy and I had misgivings about her sleeping out when I wouldn’t be able to get a hold of her. As she got older, so did the ease of communication, yet I still hemmed and hawed during our negotiations about whether to let her go. I didn’t veto every sleepover, despite my instinct to do so, and she certainly didn’t miss out on slumber parties and other special events with friends. But I didn’t encourage them either. Because as long I was the one responsible for my kids’ daily well-being, it was simply not something I was comfortable with.

I don’t say “no” to everything. I’m not that parent. Nor am I a tiger mom. Unlike Amy Chua, who had “attend sleepovers” on her list of things she never allowed her daughters to do, my issues with sleepovers stem more from fear for my kids’ safety rather than ensuring their success. While I get that sleepovers are a part of growing up, I don’t think they are an integral part of childhood happiness. Kids these days need to shed the billowy protective layer modern-day parents tend to create around them, but I just don’t see the link between sleepovers and that particular molting.

Sure, there are benefits to children spending a night away from home with their friends. An opportunity for in-person goofing around and bonding, as opposed to relying on online interactions—a welcome break from the daily regimen. And such time with friends teaches life skills like independence, problem-solving and autonomy. Which is why both my son and daughter attended seven-week sleep away camps, as I did when I was a kid, to have an opportunity for personal growth away from home, while having fun with their peers, all without the bubble wrap of parent supervision.

Yet for me, there’s a difference between the camp environment, with built-in safety measures, structure, and a uniformity of clearly defined rules, and sleepovers, which seem by design to be more intentionally out of control, and at times grossly undersupervised.

I’d like to peg my slant against sleep-outs on something more tangible, like lack of sleep and the probability that my kids will be wrecked the day after. But I recognize that even an occasional weekend night playing X-box into the wee hours while drinking root beer and eating bowls of ice cream is not likely to cause lasting behavioral or emotional harm. And plus, the potential social benefits derived from sleeping (or not) on blow-up mattresses while laughing with friends arguably outweighs such one-off setbacks.

But what’s at stake for me is very different from exhaustion or overindulging on sweets—and it’s much more daunting.  

Beyond the pillow fights and giggles, how can we make sure our kids will be safe when they sleep at a friend’s house? It might be among the painful truths of parenting that, despite our emotional attachment to our children, we cannot possibly protect them from all unknown harms. And yet, in this arena, I am just not willing to take the risk.

Kids lie, and during the teen years especially, those lies really matter. A time when the dreaded “can I have a sleepover?” is a powerful reminder of our own bad choices from the 70s and 80s: poor judgment at a high school pep rally, too much to drink at an unsupervised house party, or hopping into a car with the wrong friend.

If I am considered a neurotic mother because I say “no” to my kids sleeping out, I’m okay with that. Because it is the unspoken rule of parenting to keep our children safe as best we can, until they no longer need us to, when it is their turn to take care of themselves.

That same daughter who complained she didn’t have enough childhood sleepovers is now a sophomore in college; she lives 500 miles from home. I accept I am no longer the person responsible for her daily safety. Her days, and nights, are self-supervised now. While it may have been a nuisance growing up with a mother like me, I parented the way I did because I believed it was my responsibility to do so. And now at this place of independence, one which has come naturally for both of us, I have no regrets for my tough stance on sleepovers. But I still long for reassurance that she is safe; it keeps me awake, sometimes into the wee hours of the night. 

Randi Olin
 is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. Most Friday and Saturday nights you can find her up late with her cell phone bedside, awaiting a proof of life text from her teenage son. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Mother And Child At The Beach At Sunset Painting, by Ian Donley

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