The Case for Sleepovers

They are a chance for children to be silly and a touch subversive, and to get a glimpse of how other families live their lives.

Girls on a sofa at a sleepover.
Mark Peterson / Corbis / Getty

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Sleepovers were mostly a nightmare for me as a child, and I mean that literally: I had nightmares every single time I slept over at a friend’s house. Too embarrassed to tote my babyish night-light from home, I’d lie awake roiled with terror. Come morning—my Rolodex of anxieties exhausted—I’d immediately begin lobbying my mother on the drive home for the exact same sleepover routine the next weekend. I loved sleepovers.

Sleepovers helped me escape my nerdy little comfort zone. They were an opportunity to be silly and a touch subversive, and to get a glimpse of how other families lived their lives. Old-school prank phone calls were usually on offer—an act of mild sociopathy I would have sooner died to avoid than try alone in my own home, or by daylight. I once got a concussion after an excitable girl hit me with a blunt object, and I had to be driven home in the middle of the night. Another time a friend and I got in trouble for deliberately pouring copious amounts of “blood” (red food coloring) on her sheets as a joke.

We occasionally snooped around family areas that were clearly off-limits, and I recall that some of the more louche parents had Playboy magazines in full view in their bathrooms. My own family home was particularly attractive as a sleepover venue because, apart from the distinction of having a “cool” mom who provided junk food, we also had access to my father’s medical journals, which featured black-and-white photos of naked adults with genital tumors and other afflictions.

My childhood spanned the era of what I’ll call, unscientifically, “Peak Sleepover,” a period from roughly the mid-1960s to the early ’80s that’s fondly remembered (by those of us with poor memories and limited insight) for its laissez-faire parenting norms. Today’s parents appear more skeptical of sleepovers. On TikTok, a father and psychiatrist got millions of views for a pair of videos in which he explains why he doesn’t let his children attend sleepovers. The Washington Post recently published an article featuring parents worried about their kids being exposed to a range of concerns, including excess screen time and domestic violence.

I’m not unsympathetic to some of the no-sleepover arguments, but denying our children a chance to learn up close from other families shortchanges children’s autonomy. I think it’s fair to ask why adults can’t organize our lives better to give children reasonable and age-appropriate experiences that put them at non-zero but nonetheless limited risk, and that benefit their maturation.

No one is suggesting—certainly I am not—that children should be entrusted to unsafe households for a night. I’m deeply aware of all that can go wrong when adults fail to protect a child. I’ve spent my professional life trying to persuade adults to take children’s needs seriously. But one badly neglected need is that of acquiring resilience and self-sufficiency.

Basic due diligence (asking about firearms in the home, or whether older siblings’ friends or a new boyfriend are visiting, for example) is essential for any interaction between kids and other families. But after the threshold for safety has been met, why does it matter if our kids eat junk food for a night, or hear unwelcome political views, or sit through the wrong kind of prayers (or no prayers) at dinnertime? Why would we want to deprive a child of the occasional strange or uncomfortable experience at another family’s house—even one that might directly conflict with our values or our preferred practices? Isn’t an understanding of human differences a bulwark against frailty and narcissism? We’re not talking about moving in with a new family, just spending the night!

As an adult, seeing the appeal of sleepovers can be hard, but children can benefit from them for a couple of reasons. For one thing, sleepovers provide an experience, like trick-or-treating, when the power balance between grown-ups and children can shift in the latter’s favor for the simple reason that parents don’t have the stamina to keep up with (or even stay awake for) kids’ antics. Feeling powerful can be energizing and, well, empowering.

But an even more potent benefit is the chance to learn deeply from other families. I found it incredibly exciting to be a voyeur in another family’s home. Some families ran a tight ship; others had dishes piled high in the sink. Some parents were fun to talk with; others scared me witless. Some families seemed to be thriving; others were just hanging on. Seeing these differences helped me reflect on my own place in the world.

Sleepovers offered a window into something mysterious and occasionally unsettling: other families’ emotional lives. 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.

Spending the night at someone else’s house was, for me, like a trip to a foreign land. What was it like to have divorced parents? To struggle to buy food? To speak a different language at the dinner table? To have a canopy bed and your own private dressing room? These are abstractions for a child until you’re brushing your teeth in someone else’s sink, sneaking a peek in someone else’s refrigerator, letting somebody’s parent comfort you in the middle of the night.

But I wasn’t only a voyeur; I learned skills such as how to sleep in the dark, and talk with intimidating people, and tolerate teasing from someone’s older sibling. I also learned compassion, humility, and gratitude from sleeping at other people’s houses. I saw the generosity and indulgence families extended to me. I saw their pride in how they did things. I saw the brave faces they put on. More than one of my childhood friends had lost a parent; some of them had other significant trauma. I saw family struggles that could be more easily hidden in daytime hours. Sleepovers, for all their flaws, humanized others, and as a result, they made me more human too.

In our polarized world, where people now view the smallest differences as grounds for ostracism, it seems to me that there is more need than ever to allow our children to play and eat and, yes, sleep in another child’s home.