"Can we have a sleepover?"
For years, that has been the maddening, constant request from my 7-year-old daughter.
It's maddening, because my answer has never faltered; since before her birth, I had a rule about sleepovers — we don't do them. The hard-line stance was inspired by my own experience of using sleepovers mostly to consume sugary cereals and watch "Dirty Dancing" (both of which were verboten in the house of my youth). My inclinations were later justified by the O.G. Tiger Mom Amy Chua, who listed never attending a sleepover as one of the key strategies in promoting her daughters' success. If it worked for her (albeit controversially), why not me?
And it's constant because everything is constant with a persistent 7-year-old, and she has a lot of friends. But recently, I loosened my stance and relented.
Yes, dear daughter. You can have a sleepover with your best friend. Who is a boy.
On a scale of one to woke, the decision to go girl-boy on a sleepover — her first at that — seemed to be trending toward the woke side when I revealed what was going down to my own friends. "Wow I'm taking notes," read the text from one, who is the parent to two boys, 5 and 4. But before smugness set in, I admitted the decision was based on a few different things.
Like many parenting boundaries that go by the wayside, this issue was influenced by a practical consideration that is also my Achilles' heel: Los Angeles-area traffic. If I chose not to have my daughter's bestie spend this particular night under our roof, picking him up for our planned day trip together the following morning would add an hour to our travel time. Letting him crash at our house made all the sense in the world.
That said, I had given this possibility a good bit of thought as their friendship blossomed over the previous two years. Even before she posed the actual question, something about this scenario felt right. Saying yes to a sleepover with a kid of a different gender represents my wish for her that she has friends in her life who are just that. Friends. Not friends who are boys and therefore have a different set of rules.
I spoke to several experts (who aren't factoring traffic into the equation), and they confirmed my feelings.
"I really like the idea of sleepovers having nothing to with gender. It's a special time for friends to share more intimate moments together," says Emily Bruckner, a pediatrician in Los Angeles. "In the innocence of childhood, this intimacy has far more to do with secrets told under the covers or setting up a special fort with sleeping bags or sharing a late-night snack in pajamas. This intimacy has nothing to do with sex or gender or anything other than friendship and bonding."
Jan Kaminsky, assistant professor of nursing at CUNY and co-founder of Rainbow Health Consulting (and a mom to three sleepover-age kids), agrees.
"When we say no to sleepovers between kids of different genders, we are thinking something untoward is going to happen, and we're placing our own bias on that," Kaminsky says. "For very young children, there's that fear of [them] breaking privacy: 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours.' I think the issue of privacy or whatever it is that people are nervous about, it's backwards. You're assuming that the child is thinking in that way, which is a weird adult prescription to put on an 8-year-old."
Kaminsky also points out that larger messages are being telegraphed when we make these choices for our kids. In a general sense, she reminds us that "all of their experiences contribute to their social construct of gender and sexuality later in life."
More specifically, Kaminsky says that we're planting a long-lasting seed about trust and how it relates to gender. "When you say no to a girl about sleeping over at a boy's house, you're teaching the girl that all male people have something that can't be trusted," she says.
Which brings up the other side of the issue: What are we teaching boys when we don't encourage them to have close friendships with girls?
When parents don't exclude intimate play with girls from their boys' lives, and really support who they want to play and build pillow forts with, regardless of gender, it has a lasting impact on how they stand up for people later in life, too. "Men of virtue come from boys who have a secure base," says Michael Reichert, author of "How to Raise a Boy." "A boy who feels known and loved is in the best position to stand for himself against peer and cultural pressure later in life." In other words, allowing a mixed-gender sleepover might just help them be better humans later on.
But what if, even though all makes sense, a mixed-gender sleepover doesn't feel right? To be sure, in some cultures this might be a hard no. And if you feel that your child might be entering an unsafe environment, then absolutely go with your gut. If, on the other hand, all that's standing between your child and a potential memory-making experience is your own unease, there are steps you can take to create a comfort zone for all.
No matter what genders are at play in the friendship, we should be talking to our children about what is or isn't appropriate when interacting with their friends' bodies. Reiterating these guidelines before a new overnight experience doesn't hurt.
"We teach our children from an early age that nobody sees or touches our private parts other than ourselves, our families and our doctors, and we don't touch anyone else's," Bruckner says. "This is especially important to reinforce when discussing a sleepover where there may be bath time or outfit changes."
Kaminsky also says that having the guest sleep in another space "is totally normal, too."
As for my daughter and her BFF, the night was, in Kaminsky's words, totally normal. They even fell asleep early. She was in her bed; he was on an air mattress beside it. If success in child rearing can be measured in instances where the kids moved through a scenario with absolute confidence in their own sense of being and zero knowledge of hand-wringing, this event lands in the win category. And we beat the traffic the next day.