Getting ready for the first day of school: spending a night with friends can be a bonding experience that helps children expand their relationships beyond family.

Going to a sleepover boosts kids’ confidence and social skills

When her eldest daughter first attended sleepovers with her Girl Guides Sparks troupe, Tammi Roy received calls home from the young girl — but not for the reason she’d expected.

When her eldest daughter first attended sleepovers with her Girl Guides Sparks troupe, Tammi Roy received calls home from the young girl — but not for the reason she’d expected.

“We discovered the problem was that it was late at night — it was after their last movie — and all the other girls had fallen asleep. And she was the only up besides the troupe leader — and she was bored,” said Roy, founder of the blog My Organized Chaos, which chronicles motherhood, travel and other subjects.

“She still wanted to play, she still wanted to gossip and chat. And she looked around and everyone was sleeping, and her five-year-old mind thought, ‘OK. That’s it. I’m going home,”’ she added with a laugh.

“Once we kind of talked to her about that saying ‘There is a bedtime there and you can’t stay up all night,’ the ones after that went completely fine.”

But when Isabelle, now seven, attended her first sleepover at a school friend’s home, it was Roy who had concerns.

“I think I phoned their house four or five times that evening just making sure everything was OK and kind of listening to what’s going on in the background,” recalled the Red Deer, mother, who also has twin daughters, Katelyn and Sophia.

“I was nervous because you can know a family and know where they live and everything, but unless you spend a great deal of time there, it’s kind of hard to let a young one just kind of go off. But also, you’ve got to trust what you’ve taught your child.”

Whether it’s for an overnight stay or stretched over several days, sleepovers offer prime opportunities for kids to spend extended time with friends outside of school and playdates. But it can be an anxiety-ridden experience for parents, who may be concerned for kids’ safety and have qualms about their readiness to spend the night away from home.

Calgary-based parenting educator Judy Arnall said it’s key parents know their child’s temperament before deciding whether to send them on sleepovers.

“If they’re really easygoing, they don’t mind sleeping on different pillows or different rooms, then you know they’re going to have an easy time,” said Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress.

“But if you know your child is kind of anxious about those things, as a parent, you can always say ‘No sleepovers yet’, and parents can set an age where they think sleepovers should start based on their comfort level and what they know about their child.”

Arnall said some children may start off going to stay with grandparents. But there are also kids who’ll never attend sleepovers because they aren’t allowed, don’t like being away from home or want to wait till they’re older — and that’s fine, too, she noted.

Parenting expert and author Kathy Buckworth said one way to help allay jitters is to have a designated check-in time to phone home.

“Instead of saying: ‘Call me anytime,’ say ‘I’m going to call the house at 8, or you call me at 8 o’clock, and we’ll chat and say good night,”’ said the mother of four kids aged 10, 13, 18 and 20. “They know you’re still in touch, but they’re not every hour calling you to say they’re OK.”

That said, the phone issue can straddle a fine line, added Buckworth, author of The BlackBerry Diaries: Adventures in Modern Motherhood.

“You want (kids) to know if they’re in any way uncomfortable, or if something happens and they want to come home, of course they can. But you also don’t want to say, ‘If you just don’t like it, just call me and I’ll come and get you,’ because then, they’re more likely to do it.”

Rather than laying out a slew of ground rules for adults hosting sleepovers, Arnall suggests parents of kids spending the night away “throw out all the rules” for one evening.

“You can’t control what happens in someone else’s house. And it’s kind of rude to put forth that on the other parent because it may not be just your child sleeping over — it may be a few. And if you’re concerned about that and you want to set the rules, then you host the sleepover.”

Arnall advises against attempting to host solo. She suggests ensuring your partner is around for the night or asking another parent to sleep over. Both Arnall and Buckworth recommend having parents’ contact numbers in the event of emergencies or if kids need an early pickup.

When hosting sleepovers, Roy tries to ensure visiting kids are on the same schedule as her children. She also double-checks each time kids come over to see if there are any new allergies or issues of concern.

Arnall said parents also need to look ahead to the next day’s activities since kids usually don’t catch many quality zzz’s while on sleepovers.

“We call them wakeovers for a reason,” she said with a laugh. “You’ve got to be prepared you’re going to have cranky kids the next day who’ve eaten too much junk food and may have watched movies you have no control over. So as a parent you have to be prepared for the fallout.”

As a mother of five and a former Girl Guide leader, Arnall has hosted her share of sleepovers. And beyond the fun of spending time with friends, she said slumber parties can have added social benefits.

“It’s good for kids in that they build confidence in their abilities, they build trust in other adults, that other adults will take care of them for a night. And they learn to assert themselves and what they need,” said Arnall, whose kids range in age from 10 to 21.

“If they’re hungry or thirsty, they have to learn to ask the parents of the house. They learn manners, and they just build confidence in themselves that they can sleep somewhere else other than home.”

That’s been the case for Buckworth’s own kids, with her two youngest hosting or attending sleepovers virtually every weekend. She said short-term sleepovers have helped bolster her kids’ comfort levels to be away for longer periods.

“I think it teaches them a lot of social mannerisms as well as independence when they have to go and live in somebody else’s world outside of the comfort of their own home,” said Buckworth.

“That’s what we want. We want to train them to go out into the real world.”

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