How do you know when your child is old enough to sleep over at a friend's house without you? Or how long can you fob off a child who begs to be allowed to go on a sleepover for the first time?
What's the right age for a first sleepover? Eleven? Eight? How about four?
That's the conundrum I faced when one of my closest friends asked if my boys, aged six and four, could join her sons, of similar ages, for their first sleepover at her house.
My sons spend several nights with their grandparents every summer without us, and have stayed very happily with my parents since they were tiny tots, but now that the Irish Sea lies between us and all the grandparents, my boys just aren't that well versed in staying away from us overnight. My gut feeling told me they weren't ready for sleepovers with friends.
But my friend was charmingly persistent, and when my husband saw no reason not to let it happen I felt swayed by consensus, and a tad silly for making a fuss. But that didn't stop me freaking out internally. I figured my boys might make the decision for me, and protest that they didn't want to stay away overnight without us. But as discussions progressed it became obvious that my boys had no such qualms, and so it was that I waved them off to spend not just one but two nights with our friends.
I was worried. Our four-year-old still wakes up most nights and has a habit of climbing into our bed in the wee small hours. How would he cope without us at 3am? And what if he freaked out at bedtime, forcing our friends to ask us to collect him? An aborted sleepover might be even worse for a four-year-old than a sleepless one, and how could we enjoy our freedom in the knowledge that the phone might ring at any moment?
When I was a kid sleepovers only seemed to happen in the movies. But by the time I was in secondary school, mainly thanks to the summer we discovered Grease, sleepovers started to become the cool kids' way to party. No birthday bash was complete without one - but these days sleepovers seem to be the norm for much younger kids.
So was I being an over-protective parent, or is four just too young for a sleepover? The friend whose idea it was hails from South Africa, where sleepovers are no big deal even for very young children. "Sleepovers are common from a very early age if you know the parents. Birthday parties often run into weekends where we make a huge bed in the living room and loads of kids crash with videos and sweets. People are quite risk averse in the UK though, which is a bit of a shame, because kids love it."
Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, says there is no set answer to my conundrum, as is so often the case with parenting questions. "The age at which children are 'ready' to sleepover at a friend's house varies hugely. It largely depends on your child's personality and the level of independence and separation they've experienced so far. On the whole though, a child probably isn't going to be able to cope with a sleepover (no matter how keen they say they are to have one) if they tend to get clingy at bedtime, are very reliant on a particular routine or still wake up at night, particularly if they want you when this happens."
Therein lies my big fear about sleepovers for primary schoolers. They might say they're ready to sleep away from home without you - but does a four-year-old really know what he's ready for?
Liat adds: "If you do take the plunge and pack them off to someone else's house for the night, it's best to stick with a very familiar family and child for the first sleepover. It can also help to get them used to staying at a close relatives' occasionally first if that hasn't been the case so far. Finally, just in case there are tears at bedtime and it all gets too much, don't venture too far from the other family's home!"
In the end, all my fears were unfounded. My friend hailed the sleepover a resounding success and my boys came back with nothing but praise for the experience. It seems I'm the only one suffering from separation anxiety as not only did they not think to phone home in 48 hours, but not one of them mentioned a word about the fact that we weren't with them.
And I learned some valuable lessons by allowing them to experience a sleepover several years earlier than I was expecting to. First, that my children deserve more credit for knowing what they are and are not ready for, that my mum is usually always right (she said they'd have a ball and I was worrying too much), and that 48 child-free hours is a wonderful experience that no parent in their right mind should ever pass up.
What age do you think is the right age for sleepovers?