Brianna Michaud’s ’90s childhood was filled with sleepovers at friends’ houses. Her mother sometimes came inside the house and chatted with the parents for a few minutes, but sensitive topics like bodily autonomy, gun safety or technology use — except for the rule that she not watch anything rated PG-13 or higher — weren’t the kinds of things discussed.
“It was a different time,” Ms. Michaud, now 35, said.
It may come as no surprise that parents are experiencing more anxiety in general these days. There is an increased awareness of issues like sexual abuse and gun violence, said Christy Keating, a licensed parenting coach based in the Seattle area. Almost half of parents in the U.S. describe themselves as overprotective, according to Pew research published last year.
And perhaps no scenario tests a parent’s vigilance more than the prospect of allowing their child to sleep at another family’s home. For some parents, one solution to this is the “sleepunder” — also called a “lateover” — where children come to play, but they don’t stay to sleep.
Qarniz F. Armstrong, a mother of three children, ages 12, 14 and 20, has never allowed her children to spend a night away from her, even with other family members. She does, however, want her kids to have normal childhood experiences, so she has settled on letting them attend parties if she can bring them home at bedtime — even if that means 2 or 3 in the morning. Considering the alternative — saying no altogether — Ms. Armstrong, who is 43 and lives in Murrieta, Calif., feels this is “a good compromise.”
Her oldest, Mecca, has a different point of view. Although he believes his parents were looking out for his best interests, he said, “I was definitely feeling left out a lot.” He remembers begging his mother for two hours when he was 15 years old to let him attend an overnight, but she said no. By that point, the invites had been drying up, and he “really did not want to be the one kid who had to go early.”
That was perhaps the hardest, loneliest part: not necessarily being picked up early, but being the only kid who was. “I would have felt better if other kids’ parents did the same thing,” he said.
Ms. Armstrong estimates her children have probably done about 10 to 12 “lateovers” each. And she has a protocol she continues to follow: First she calls the parents to ask them about who’s going to be there, whether they have guns and what they plan to do for the evening. She then goes inside at the drop-off, greeting the parents and anyone there. “I have to not care about what other people think of how I protect my kids,” she said.
Not all protective parents are picking their children up. Last March, Ms. Michaud hosted a “mommy-and-me sleepover,” with another mother and two children at her house in Silverdale, Wash., before her family moved to San Diego. She considered it a great way to let her children, who are 5 and 7, and their friends spend the night together in a safe, familiar environment, she said.
It was also a good way to connect with another parent and not be hounded by her children. While the kids played with her family’s puppy, bounced around at the “glowstick dance party” and watched “Sing 2,” Ms. Michaud got to slow down a bit and catch up over a glass of wine with the other mother. “You get to have these adult conversations you don’t get to otherwise,” she said.
But what do children potentially lose by not spending the night elsewhere? “Sleepovers are a pretty normative part of U.S. kid culture,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of family psychology at Ohio State University, “and they give children an opportunity for real independence.” In her own experience, being exposed to different lifestyles and customs in her friends’ homes growing up inspired a lifelong passion for studying how families function and their ripple effects on society.
Sleepovers can be fun and beneficial for children, but parents get something out of it, too: a free night off from your child if they stay until morning. “It’s a great way to trade babysitting,” Ms. Keating said. “And a great way for connection to other families.”
The trick, Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan said, is to try to strike a balance where one is cautious but not overprotective. “Parents who are overly cautious” with sleepovers, she said, “are usually overly cautious to other things,” and that can cause anxiety problems for children who are forbidden to take age-appropriate risks and therefore build a healthy sense of resilience and autonomy.
The 8-year-old daughter of Toni Anne Kruse, a mother of two who lives in Maplewood, N.J., is ready to move on from sleepunders.
“She’s actually annoyed by them,” Ms. Kruse, 42, said. What her daughter is raring to do are sleepovers, and she’s already done about 10 of them, with “people I know and trust,” her mother added. To Ms. Kruse, whose own parents rarely allowed her to spend the night at a friend’s house, sleepovers are a “special time” to bond with friends.
She also concedes that she personally benefits from sleepovers: “I’d rather be cozy and relaxing at home then have to pick them up somewhere” late at night.
“You don’t want to hold your kid back from formative experiences,” she said.
Some children prefer their own space, though. While Ms. Armstrong’s 14-year-old son has attended about a dozen sleepunders, he always relishes the moment when he can return home and crash in his own bed. He never asks to stay later at a friend’s, and when friends come over to his house, he tends to fade early and chooses sleeping over socializing. “He likes his privacy,” his mother said.
Dorina G., a 43-year-old mother in Los Angeles who was born in Iran and grew up in Sweden,has already thrown about 12 sleepunders for her children, who are 5 and 7, and their friends and families. She loves them, not least of all because the adults get to mingle — sometimes over catered food, potlucks or in formal attire — until the kids’ movie wraps around 10 p.m., at which time everyone heads home for bed.
Ms. G., who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy, and her husband once hosted a parent-child sleepover in their backyard, where fathers slept outside in tents with the kids while the mothers retreated to the comfort of their own beds.
For Ms. G. and her family, traditional sleepovers won’t be an option until her children are at least 13 or 14 years old, she said. Growing up in Sweden, she “thoroughly enjoyed” spending the night in other homes, but “knowing what we know now,” she said, her and her husband’s attitudes have changed.
“I’m much more of the worrywart mom.”