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Too Young for Sleepovers

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GROWING CONCERNS: A childrearing question-and-answer column with Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota.

Question:

Our second-grader is talking about having sleepovers, but we're not sure she's old enough. We're especially uneasy about slumber parties, but that seems to be a big thing with our friends' kids. At what age is it OK, and what can parents do to make sleepovers manageable?

Answer:

Sleepovers and slumber parties are big events in children's lives--a time to feel grown-up, to enjoy a special closeness with friends, to tell silly jokes or scary stories, or to laugh until they cry. Yet, sleepovers can be big headaches for parents. There is no set age when it's OK for kids to begin having sleepovers, and children vary greatly in terms of when they (and their parents) feel ready. For many children, a sleepover at a friend's house is their first time away from home. It's a chance to spread their wings, practicing for longer separations such as camp or special trips. What's important is that the child feels ready for that separation and knows that it's OK to decide she'd rather stay home and sleep in her own bed, despite peer pressure to do otherwise. The first time your daughter does decide to stay at a friend's house, it's a good idea to assure her that she can call you if she changes her mind. If your child is the one hosting a sleepover, you might let guests know in advance that at a certain time you'll check to be sure everyone wants to stay. Then offer a ride, or call the parents, if anyone wants to go home.

When planning sleepovers, it's important that parents of both guests and hosts communicate clearly about when kids should arrive and leave, where parents can be reached in case of an emergency, and what the plan is if a child gets scared or homesick or misbehaves. As for misbehavior, even the best-behaved kids sometimes get wound up and do foolish things in the excitement of a slumber party. (Crank phone calls and sneaking outside in the middle of the night are all-time favorites among older kids. In fact, I did the same when I was a kid, and it came around to me a few years ago when I caught my son and his friends sneaking out after curfew.) So, the best thing is to anticipate the possibilities and lay down clear ground rules in advance. These might include:

*Staying inside after a certain hour, which will vary depending on the age of the kids

*Rules about what to eat and where (but be liberal folks ... this is a time for treats)

*Limited use of the telephone

*Rules about noise level and physical activity (pillow fights can be fun but hazardous to your household)

*Guidelines for acceptable movies (scary movies are a popular slumber party activity, but can be really frightening for young children)

In general, when you do muster the courage to host a slumber party, work with your child to choose fun games, videotapes and special snacks. Simplify your job by asking each guest to bring a sleeping bag or bedroll. As they arrive, clearly tell them what your rules and expectations are, and the consequences if anyone doesn't follow the rules. Let them know that if everyone plays by the rules, everyone can have a great time.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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