Should my child go on a sleepover?

The decision to let your child have a sleepover at another family’s house is a big one, and rightly so. Most of us probably feel like our kids are safest when they’re under our supervision. Plus, we quickly start picturing having to head out in our PJs in the middle of the night to collect our tearful and homesick offspring from the doorstep of their slightly embarrassed host. Both angles of concern can leave us parents feeling a bit uncomfortable.

I have three daughters, all of whom have varying responses to a sleepover at a friend or family member’s house. (Midnight pick-ups: tick). Here are a few ideas for navigating the potential pitfalls of pyjama parties, and guiding kids to sleepover success – when they’re good and ready.

 At what age should kids be allowed sleepovers?

Each child is different so individual kids will feel comfortable sleeping away from home at different ages. Ideally, kids need to be of the age and stage where they can assert themselves when faced with something they’re uncomfortable with. If a child does not yet have a confident voice, then it’s best we keep them under our wing a while longer.

It’s super helpful to establish the ‘In our family, we..’ boundary as soon as possible. It could be that ‘In our family we only have a sleepover when we’re older than 10.’ Or ‘…we only have sleepovers with close family friends or cousins’. Once this boundary is established, kids know the expectation and take confidence from the fact that their parents have thought about a situation and planned a consistent approach.

Family coach Jenny Hale has observed that sleepovers are very appealing to children and are tending to start younger and younger. Jenny’s perspective is that sleepovers really belong in the special treat realm, rather than being an everyday occurrence. And the thing about special treats is that they are worth waiting for. There’s no need to start sleepovers too young. Jenny is also quick to remind us that kids don’t always know what’s good for them and will ask for things simply because they are kids. Parents, this is one of those moments when it’s important we take the lead.  

What are the risks?

Without plummeting into ‘worst case scenarios’ here, there are some ‘less-terrible-but-still-problematic’ risks when kids go to another house for a sleepover. Homesickness, for example, is a very real risk and your child being scared and uncomfortable at night is far from ideal. Again, each child is different in terms of how they cope with being away from home, and homesickness can sneak up on a child who has previously been unaffected by it.

Not actually getting any sleep! Again a real risk, and one that can have painful consequences for the whole family… for days!

And of course, you can’t control what happens to your child, or what they are exposed to, when they are outside of your home. There’s no point beating around the bush here – outside of your supervision, your child is at greater risk of being exposed to things your family may not be okay with (media, movies, music, etc). There is also the harsh reality of not knowing who else is in the house, who your child will have contact with and what safety measures are in place to protect children at night. Yikes. So what are the benefits? Good question!

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Midnight feasts and giggling

Staying away from home is an opportunity for growth in resilience and confidence. I have seen all three of my girls come home from a successful sleepover holding their heads a little higher and proud of their achievement. A sleepover with a close friend or family member can also be a good place to gain confidence for the potentially more daunting prospect of school camp.

Sleepovers are a great chance for kids to practise managing themselves. They can have a go at packing their bag and thinking about all the things they’ll need for a night away. When they’re away, they can then remember where all those things are, and that they need to use them at some point. (I’m looking at you, Toothbrush!) However, our parenting goal is always connection rather than independence. That said, time apart can enhance that connection between parent and child, especially when everyone can savour the delight of coming home and being reunited.

A sleepover at someone else’s house can also be an insightful opportunity for kids to see how another family operates. This may help them value what makes families different and what they love about their own family.

Also, kids can have a really fun and memorable time at a sleepover with their friends. And they’ve been doing so for decades. So, in a nutshell, there are pros and cons! If you do choose to allow your child to go to a sleepover, when they themselves are ready, there are a few things you can do to help things go as smoothly as possible.

Strategies for sleepover success

Remember, there is no need to rush into sending your kids off for sleepovers. Here are some alternatives:

  • Be the host. If your child is really keen on a sleepover, but you’re not comfortable with them going to another home, host the sleepover at your place. A sleepover with grandparents is also a good starting point.
  • Offer an alternative arrangement – playdate, dinner and movie at a friend’s house, and then pick-up at night before bed. It will be fun to be out late, with the benefits of everyone sleeping in their own beds.
  • You could work up to sleepovers with things like joining another family at a bach or staying on a marae as a family. These are great opportunities for kids to experience sleeping in different places, and adjusting their evening routines accordingly.

Sleepover safety essentials

  • Know the family your child is staying with and know who will be in the house. This is really, really important.
  • Be the enquirer. If your child is invited to stay with people you don’t know as well, get to know them better. Invite them over for a drink or meet up at the park. If a sleepover is going ahead and you’ve still got some questions, enquire! As kids get older, it’s harder to keep up with all their friends. Teens especially may be organising their own social engagements. But don’t let go in your quest for information. Make the phone calls and go out of your way to introduce yourself. Call it what it is and be unashamed about your ‘investigation’. “Hi, I’m that parent who gets a bit anxious and needs a lot of details. I’ve got some questions for you: Who will be there? What movie will they watch? What time will they go to sleep? What’s for breakfast? What was your favourite holiday destination as a kid? Who did you vote for?” (Okay, so the breakfast question doesn’t really matter.)
  • Trust your gut. If you have any hesitations, just say ‘No, thanks’. It’s okay to say no!
  • Sleepovers need supervision, because children need our presence. If you are the host, think about how you will keep a watchful eye on the kids. If you’re trusting your child to another parent, gently explain your expectations for supervision, and also what your child needs to feel safe. One of my daughters, for example, needs to know that she’s not the last one in the house still awake. So I’ve talked to my good friend (who is the mum of my daughter’s good friend – an arrangement I can highly recommend!) and she tells our daughter that she’ll always stay up until the kids are definitely asleep at a sleepover.
  • Give your child a code word – tell them that they can ring you any time with a special code if they feel uncomfortable, and you will come and pick them up. Something like “I forgot to feed the cat” (this was what my mother-in-law used!) is code for “I want to come home”… and the beauty of this is, you don’t even have to have a cat for the code to be effective.
  • Communication is key – keep it sweet so your child knows they can talk to you about anything, at any time. No topic is off the table. It’s really important that parents don’t respond with alarm when a child brings up something concerning, as we risk shutting them down. This is obviously easier said than done. Maybe spend some time practising your calm face right now, so you can rely on muscle memory if a poker face is ever required in a moment of shock.

Looking for more personalised strategies and solutions for your family? 

Our Family Coaches bring their extensive training and experience to help uncover new insights, ideas and practical solutions to parenting and relationship challenges. Through one-on-one support (in person, via Skype or email), you’ll be provided with take-home strategies to bring about the positive changes you desire for your whānau.

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About Author

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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