Sleepovers are an important part of childhood

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

By Lauren Apfel

My house was the “sleepover” house. The one, when we were in high school, all my friends would tell their parents they were staying at so we could go out on Saturday night and do slightly untoward things. Like hop a train into New York City and drink wine coolers in the dingy, over-lit upstairs of the Korean grocery near Penn Station before cabbing over to the latest hotspot. We did this rather often, as teenagers, rushing wildly through the streets of Manhattan to catch the last train back to Long Island, the 1:20am, because if you didn’t make that, you’d be stuck there until 3:50.

My mom gave me a long leash. To this day, I don’t think she knew what I was doing on those late weekend nights. She turned a blind eye, or she trusted me, or maybe that amounts to the same thing when you are dealing with a sixteen year old. The house I grew up in is four stories high. My room was in the basement, my mom’s in the attic. When we came in after the clubs, a gaggle of girls with our eyeliner smeared and our hearts still pounding from whatever thrills the night had delivered, we would slide in through the side door, which opened directly onto a set of stairs that led down to my room. We were library-silent as we went, not that my mom would be able to hear us from where she was sleeping. Not that she was listening out anyhow.

Many nights ended at my house in this way, but I slept out a lot too. It was a relished part of my childhood. I loved the differences sleeping at a friend’s house revealed. The feeling of somebody else’s sheets on my skin, the smell of somebody else’s breakfast coaxing me from slumber. Sure, you could get flickers of another family life during the day, at a playdate or hang-out session. But it was only by staying over, by sleeping over, that you could fully immerse in a domestic world that wasn’t your own.

My oldest child had his first sleepover when he was six—that was five years ago now. I remember it clearly because I was away at the time and my husband mentioned the invitation to me casually on the phone. My son was a cautious boy at that age, resistant to new situations, introverted, as he is now, but he always had a best friend, one person he would latch on to and hold tight like a buoy in a stormy sea. This was the boy who invited him for the sleepover and my son, defying expectations, was keen to go. We knew the parents a little bit at that point, enough to satisfy ourselves that they are perfectly lovely, responsible people (as all of our children’s friends’ parents are). Still, when my husband raised the prospect, I felt something course through me. Something unpleasant and prickly. Fear or, more likely, loss of control.

It’s the vulnerability and potential dangers that night brings. Every parent knows nighttime brews a fresh cup of hot worries, that the mind turns immediately to worst case scenarios. With young children, you picture them scared in the unfamiliar bed, tossing and turning absent the creature comforts of home. With older children, you picture god knows what else. If home is a bubble of security and routine, sleepovers are the ultimate puncture. I have many friends who let their children have playdates at other people’s houses, but who are highly reluctant to let them sleep there. Sometimes this is to do with the nature of the kid, who might be genuinely uninterested in—or uncomfortable with—this aspect of social interaction. But more often than not it is do with a certain pitch of parental anxiety.

I agreed my son should have the sleepover. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that I was out of town, one giant step removed from the practicalities of packing his toothbrush and sleeping in my own bed while his yawned empty. But when I think back I realize it was the right decision through and through. The reluctance, after all, was mine not his. He came home invigorated and overjoyed. That night broke the seal on sleepovers for me; I began to welcome them. Not as an every weekend affair, but as what they are: a healthy part of childhood.

My other kids are following suit. It’s important to me that they are comfortable with the idea of sleeping away from home: managing the loose, extended, unstructured time sleepovers often entail and the different household rules they present; embracing the twilight confessionals and the intense bonding that only comes from being with somebody after hours—all without mom or dad (or another relative) there for fallback. On the flip side, it’s just as important for parents to let their children take that kind of big bite of independence once in a while, even if it feels scary.

Sleepovers aren’t all unicorns and rainbows for me. The kids come home exhausted, of course, and I spend the next day rueing their red-rimmed eyed and grumpiness. And right now, given their ages, my biggest concern about what’s happening when they are away is that they are overdosing on junk food and video games. But I will continue to let them sleep out, even when it means they are sneaking off to do something worse than all-night binges of Minecraft. Encouraging that aspect of their autonomy matters to me. I imagine I too will give them a long leash, because I want them to have fun. But also because I want them to learn to make good choices—during the night as much as during the day, and especially when they are not under my roof.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. As a mother of four children, she is very happy when one—or more—of them sleeps out for the night. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter

Get Motherwell straight to your inbox.