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Erika Christakis: In Defense of Sleepovers

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Read Time: 2 minutes

Erika Christakis, early childhood expert and author of The Importance of Being Little, NAILS IT in her Atlantic essay on sleepovers.

Noting that sleepovers have gone from age-old activity to yet another thing to fret about when it comes to kids, she says she’s sympathetic to the no-sleepover arguments. (Some of which have gone viral.) Feel free to ask about guns, swimming pools, who’s going to be home, or what have you, she says. BUT: “Denying our children a chance to learn up close from other families shortchanges children’s autonomy.”

Since autonomy is pretty crucial for kids, try not to sweat the smaller, simply sub-optimal stuff. Christakis herself recalls sleeping over at some friends’ homes where there wasn’t a lot of food in the fridge, or the dishes were piled high, or talking with the parents was downright scary. What’s more:

It’s often hard for families to contain arguments, rivalries, and mood swings at nighttime. Fathers were usually the wild card, prone to nonsensical outbursts that occasionally scared me, but mothers could be weird too: cranky, depressed, flighty. Sometimes the weirdness came from how utterly normal other kids’ parents seemed, or from the suspicion that other people’s families might be just a little better than my own.

The world at night.

But the good outweighed the bad overall. What she got from the overnights, aside from fun with her friends (and the misery of staying up almost all night because she was too embarrassed to bring the nightlight that comforted her), was a chance to see the world. Or as much of it as a kid of sleepover age can see. Different delicacies. Smells. Religions. Rituals.

She also got to engage in a little subversive behavior, like making prank calls (which we used to call phony phone calls). I’m not sure exactly what prank calling does, developmentally, but if nothing else it requires courage. One of my favorite stories about cold-calling strangers comes from my friend Barbara Sarnecka, who did this as a kid. She called folks out of the phone book to poll them: “Hello, can I ask if you ever played a musical instrument?” She grew up to be a professor of cognitive sciences and surveys are her jam.

There’s so little independence left.

As we curtail kids’ chances to walk around the neighborhood, talk to non-pre-approved adults, explore the woods, play at the park, and run errands — all the ways kids once would start absorbing and assimilating to life — the sleepover seems like one of the last bastions of childhood independence.

Give ’em a sleeping bag and off they go.

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