When you were a kid, did you love packing your bags and heading down the block to spend the night at a school friend’s house? At the time, all you could probably think about was staying up late, watching movies and getting a sugar high on candy. But as a parent, you might not view sleepovers through rose-colored, flip-up glasses any longer. After all, when is a child ready to spend a night away from home? And what makes a sleepover safe?
Below, we’ve gathered some tips to help you prepare for your kid’s first sleepover — whether they’re attending or hosting at your home.
When is your kid sleepover-ready?
Determining when your child is ready for a bit more independence can be difficult, especially since there aren’t any hard-and-fast prerequisites. (Sorry, folks, you do not have to be this tall or this old to enter the slumber party.)
Instead of basing your decision on age, licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino recommends looking at other factors, such as emotional and behavioral development.
“A child’s age is not as important as their level of maturity and self-sufficiency,” Guarino tells SheKnows. “Around age 7, a child can typically be considered mature enough to spend the night away, but each individual child is different and should be considered on an individual basis.”
Ask yourself questions like, “Does my child play well with others and listen to adults?” And, “How does she react when we’re apart for long periods of time?” Answer the questions thoughtfully and honestly — and ultimately trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone.
Have a pre-party meet & greet
When in doubt, suss it out. Before you agree to send your child to someone else’s house, it’s critical you get to know your kid’s friend and the supervising adults, children’s counselor Kim Martinez tells SheKnows. Set up a playdate so you can get a feel for how your child and her friend interact with one another. Does she act the same around her pal, or does her behavior change in any way? Do they seem to have a good time together? These are just some of the questions you might want to ask yourself.
Though Martinez says both sets of parents or guardians would ideally have a close friendship, that doesn’t have to be — and isn’t always — the case when a child receives a sleepover invite. Get to know the hosts by going out to coffee or having them over for an after-school chat.
“Having a conversation with the parents is important,” Guarino says. “That way, the lines of communication are open, and you are fully aware of any needs or behavioral issues of each child.”
Ask the tough questions
Once you’ve exchanged niceties with your child’s friend’s parents or guardians, it’s time to cut to the chase and ask the more difficult questions. Though it may seem awkward to ask another adult if they have a gun in the home and how they store it, addressing the issue could help save your child’s life.
Drafting a list of things that are important for you to know before the conversation can help hold you accountable and make the experience more comfortable. Does anyone in the house use drugs recreationally? What kinds of movies are their children allowed to watch at home? How many people will be at the house during the sleepover? Be kind but firm in explaining what and why these things matter to you.
“The hosting parents’ responsibility is to make sure their home is safe for children of all ages and free of hazards,” Martinez explains. “They are responsible for having all phone numbers, allergy information, health information where necessary, and a good rapport with the family and child staying in their home.”
Establish ground rules
This step is vital for parents to go over with their kids and the supervising adults. If you’re not OK with your 8-year-old kid watching Titanic, say so. The same goes for bedtimes, food choices (no, sleepovers aren’t an excuse for kids to eat junk food solely, no matter how much they insist) and games. While you can’t control everything that happens at another person’s house, you should absolutely be able to have a say regarding your child’s overall safety and well-being.
Parents should ensure the hosting family has all pertinent information — medical needs, emergency contacts, allergy information, dietary restrictions — readily accessible. Provide clear labels and instructions to make things easier for all parties involved.
Keep communication lines open
No, you don’t want to be on the phone with your child the entire night, but it’s important they know they can reach you if needed. Should they be scared to talk openly while their friends are around, you can establish a safe word to discreetly indicate that they’re feeling uncomfortable, scared or unmanageably homesick.
Also, let the hosting parents know how and when is best to contact you. It’s OK to go to a movie or out for a couple of drinks. Just inform the family beforehand if you’ll be away from your device for an extended period — and who else they might contact.
Finally, let your child know that while you hope they have an absolute blast with their friends, there’s no shame in realizing they might not be ready. Over time and with plenty of communication, you’ll both come to a clearer understanding of what works best, sleepover-wise, for your family.