The sleep-over nightmare
Many parents feel pressurised into letting their children go on sleep-overs and hosting them in return. So what are they worried about?
Published 08/03/2010 | 05:00
Letting your child go on a sleep-over for the first time is a landmark in the lives of parents. Waving the little ones off, as they clamber out the door clutching pyjama bags, pillows and teddy bears, requires copious amounts of trust and a valiant will to let them go and spread their wings.
Most parents will probably secretly prefer to always have their children tucked up safe in their own beds each night, but sometimes the little chicks crave something else entirely.
Climbing into sleeping bags with friends and chatting until the early hours of the morning is an adventure that beckons children from an early age. While it takes most parents a while to get used to the concept, some dig their heels in and forbid sleep-overs from the outset.
Insisting that your child opts out of the sleep-over culture is rarely a popular option, as 12-year-old Tess, from Co Galway, explains.
"When I go into school on Mondays and hear all about the sleep-over I was invited to but couldn't attend, I feel really sad and angry," she says.
"My friends have such a lot of fun on those nights. They share so much together, and I am excluded from that. I've tried to explain this to my parents but they don't understand.
"It wouldn't be so bad if they would allow me to have friends stay over with us, but they won't allow that either. It's a no-win situation for me."
Her mother, Kate, disagrees. "Any girl talk shared at sleep-overs can be told to Tess either before or afterwards," she says. "Her pals are regular visitors to our home, often staying until 11pm at night, and she spends vast amounts of her time in their houses.
"Spending the whole night with each other is not necessary. I feel uncomfortable with the set-up and don't plan to change my mind. I think it's good for kids to learn that they don't always have to give in to peer-pressure. It's a character-building exercise."
Louise Gallagher from Belleek, Co Fermanagh, mum of Craig (15) Nathan (12) and Ailbhe (eight) sees it like this: girls have a pecking order, where one is often played off against the other. Trying to ensure that your child gets the balance right, between being true to herself and keeping her friends, is very important.
"Hosting sleep-overs and allowing your child to go on them is part of that and it goes hand in hand with letting them grow up. Deny them, and they'll feel they've missed out."
In her experience young boys go for sleep-overs in each other's houses far less than girls.
"There's less pressure on them," she says. "Sleep-overs didn't become part of Nathan's life until he reached the age of 11, but it was different for Ailbhe.
"She'd been invited to sleep-overs from the time she was in junior infants, but I managed to avoid letting her go until last year. I accepted that invitation because I was taken off guard: the parent asked me while Ailbhe was listening to our conversation and I didn't want to disappoint her. Because she's the baby of the family, I am quite protective of her but not overly so. Like many young girls, I believe she is under pressure from friends to conform and that's why she accepts these invitations."
Louise believes that the problem with sleep-overs is that the parents whose kids stay in other people's houses have no control over what happens there.
"Ailbhe was at a sleep-over where the kids watched a very scary movie. The child who brought along that DVD is the same one who puts pressure on her classmates not to play with dolls.
"The more I heard about the evening, the more concerned I felt, and in my experience of sleep-overs, the more you know, as a parent, the more anxious you become.
"Ailbhe enjoys having her friends over and staying over with them, but I suspect she's far happier here at home in the security of her own bed."
Sometimes parents may make an effort to allow their little one spend a night away from home, only to discover that they aren't quite ready for such a separation. That was the experience of Niki O'Connell from Castletroy, in Limerick.
She and her husband Tom had given their young son Seth (five) plenty of notice about the big adventure that lay ahead -- the one that would see him staying at his aunt's house for the first time without either parent.
"He was upbeat when the day arrived," says Niki. "He helped pack his bag, gathered his favourite toys and his special blanket and off he went.
"We had every reason to think it would go well as the two of them get on really well together. But at 8.10pm Tom got a call from Seth saying that he was homesick and asking would we come and bring him home.
"We collected him and the sleep-over never happened, but I think my sister was right to let us know that he wanted to come home," says Niki.
"The whole evening was an exercise in trust. If he had had to stay there against his will, it would have been a negative experience for him. We didn't want that. It was important for him to know that he could rely on us to be there for him if he needed us."
Orla Jones from Bray, Co Wicklow, has two sons, Glynn (10) and BJ (eight).
"Once your kids start school, the subject of sleep-overs raises its head. Parents I hardly knew would suggest it, and even though our kids were friendly, I would decline, because the boys were too young and because I would never allow them to stay with people I didn't know very well.
"I feel that BJ is too young to stay at friends' houses but his pals come to stay with us and he loves that. Glynn was nearly eight when he went off on his first sleep-over. I felt a bit apprehensive, but told myself he would be fine, and he was.
"The only disadvantage of letting your child go on a sleep-over is that the other family may allow him to stay up chatting half the night. When that happens the kids are wrecked the next day, and that ruins any plans you may have made for them.
"Hosting a sleep-over is no trouble. We had our first one here for Glynn's ninth birthday.
"Boys do their own thing and are quite low maintenance. They're happy to occupy themselves playing Xbox, watching DVDs and hanging out in the bedroom.
"You only have to pop your head in the door every now and again to see if they're OK, and you hear the giggles and laughs. Then you can get on with your own evening.
"Whether or not I enjoy hosting sleep-overs depends on the kids who are staying. Some are better company and easier to have around the house than others. Another factor is how compatible the kids are.
"We had three cousins stay with us recently. One little one liked to go to bed early. She made a big effort to stay up after her bedtime to play with her siblings and cousins but it took its toll on her and she got upset.
"It can be hard for young kids when they feel they have to be the same as everyone else. When that happens and they face a night in children's company outside of their own home, it can be tough.
"I was with a group of parents one day, when one of the mums was put on the spot with an unexpected invitation to allow her daughter stay over at a pal's house. When she hesitatingly agreed, it was clear from her face that she wasn't happy about it. She then told the parent who had invited her child that she needn't be expecting a return invitation. The other parent looked a little bemused, but said that was fine.
"I admired that woman's courage and honesty. She told it as it was and the other parent had the choice of withdrawing her invitation if she wasn't happy about the one-sided arrangement."