It's almost the school holiday break - which means children across Long Island will be asking for sleepovers. The allure of the overnight - staying up late, eating junk food, playing video games, watching movies - is inarguably stronger when days of free time lie ahead.
But how is a parent to know when the little ones are ready to graduate from Grandma's house to overnight at a friend's? What pitfalls should parents anticipate? What if your daughter wants her best friend - a boy - to be the guest?
We talked to local psychologists - some with young children themselves - about the ins and outs of navigating sleepovers.
The consensus of half a dozen experts interviewed is that 7 to 9 - second or third grade - is the appropriate age to start. Before that, children aren't ready, says Juann Watson, a Valley Stream psychotherapist. "They still need a night light. They still need Mom and Dad to tuck them in. They still have nightmares," Watson says.
But parents should still assess readiness. Does he have overnight accidents? Can she share and get along for long stretches with another child? Can he go to sleep later than usual and function the next day? You can opt for a nonsleepover, in which your child visits for dinner and a movie in pajamas and is picked up at 10 p.m., says Eva Ash, a Huntington psychologist.
The easiest first sleepover is when parents have an established trust, says Don Sinkfield, a mental health counselor in Valley Stream. If the children met in school and the parents don't know each other, play dates should precede overnights, he says.
Understand that your child may be comfortable in one person's home but not another's, says Julie Hochman, a Huntington social worker. That comfort level may depend on the other parent, not the friendship with the child. "It's the adults that help them with their fears or their concerns," Hochman says.
Know how many kids have been invited. Sometimes two is best. "When you're adding more kids to the mix, it gets more complicated," Hochman says.
For a party, find out who will chaperone and whether your child is comfortable in that dynamic. "Ask your child: 'What do you think? Are you interested? Do you have mixed feelings?' " Ash says. If your child is nervous, share a story about your childhood and how you coped, Ash says. "Say, 'I was scared, but I brought my teddy bear with me and that really helped me. You could bring your teddy bear.' "
Sending children with familiar items is always a good idea. Bring pillows, stuffed animals, a sleeping bag, a cell phone, even a flashlight. If a photo of the family dog would be comforting, slip that into the bag. Watson says it's important to bring a child's own bedding for hygiene reasons. "So many things are going on in terms of bedbugs and other concerns," she says.
In any sleepover, have an "escape plan." Let your child know it's OK to ask to be picked up, even in the middle of the night. Say this in front of the other parent so the child knows everybody's onboard. "Sometimes for kids asking an adult for a drink feels kind of complicated. Imagine asking to go home," Hochman says.
Experts had mixed opinions on where kids should sleep. Most chose a den over a bedroom. "It's easier to supervise in a more natural and unobtrusive way if it's in a common area," Sinkfield says.
Dix Hills psychologist Wendy Doret agrees. "Allowing kids to be in completely isolated areas with closed doors only encourages the children to do inappropriate things," Doret says. That could be prank phone calls or watching inappropriate television, she says.
But Watson advocates sleeping in a bedroom because it might be safer: A den might have doors to the outdoors that could make the children vulnerable, she says. Watson advised knowing who else is home - older siblings or extended family. "You have to be so careful."
The coed factor complicates matters. "If there are two 8-year-olds, a boy and a girl, who are best friends and they want to have a sleepover, that's OK," Ash says.
Once children are 9, they should sleep in separate rooms, Doret says. They shouldn't wear revealing pajamas. By fifth grade, coed sleepovers should end, all agree.
But some aren't OK with coed at any age. "Kids can do things sexually so quickly and easily, even in the company of other kids," Sinkfield says. "If you welcome that type of opportunity for sexual behavior, it will happen."
THE POLITICS OF JUNK FOOD, PETS AND VIDEO RATINGS
Parents must realize that while they control their home, they can't control the rules in someone else's. "I've known families who are vegetarian or are trying to keep their children away from refined sugar or flour products," Sinkfield says. Adults should discuss this beforehand, so the adult can remind the child she can't eat a certain snack, or to take medicine.
If a pet is involved, you can tell the family, "Joey would like to have a sleepover, but he's scared of Skipper," Ash says. Ask the adult in charge how to address it, she suggests. They may say they'll keep the dog in a different room, or suggest gradually introducing the child to the pet, with lots of control. A pet allergy may pre-empt a sleepover.
You can ask what the planned activities are, the ratings of the movies or video games, and if you're not comfortable, decline. "Say, 'Thank you for the invitation, I'm sure my child is going to be disappointed,' " Watson says. "That's called tough love."