Parents want to know when to allow their children to have sleepovers with friends and at what age slumber parties are appropriate. Not so long ago...

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Parents want to know when to allow their children to have sleepovers with friends and at what age slumber parties are appropriate.

Not so long ago, overnights with friends took place among kids in junior high and high school. Today they occur in mid- or even early elementary school.

There’s a tendency today to hurry up childhood. Some young boys ride unlicensed motorcycles in back yards and vacant lots. Young girls wear teenage clothes, jewelry and makeup younger and younger.

David Elkind’s book, “The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon” (Perseus Publishing) explores these societal changes.

Spending the night and slumber parties for kids in early elementary school falls into this same “hurrying-up childhood” category.

By late elementary school, however, there are several reasons youngsters ask for sleepovers:

• Children are drawn to master relationships with peers. They seek to extend social situations in order to reach deeper into the intricacies of being friend, guest and host.

• They enjoy longer periods of unstructured time to play, going from the afternoon into the evening and then starting up again first thing in the morning.

• After age 10, children challenge themselves by determining how to manage themselves in new environments. A friend’s home is such an environment.

• They’re fascinated to witness firsthand how one family functions differently than theirs.

Yet, sleepovers often aren’t all fun. They’re exhausting, if not for the children who stayed up far later than necessary, but for the parents who didn’t fall asleep until the children did and were awakened in the morning by giggles and squeals.

One mom remembered when her 7-years-old’s neighborhood friend invited her son to spend the night. The child was reluctant. The mom, however, encouraged him as she thought about sleeping in the next morning without him waking her at dawn. At 9 o’clock the evening of the overnight, the phone rang; the child couldn’t fall asleep; he longed for the comfort and familiarity of his bed.

Another parent told of when her sixth-grade daughter hosted a birthday slumber party. Eight girls made pizza for dinner with an ice cream Sunday buffet for dessert. Then there was time for games and presents. The party should have ended then.

By 10 o’clock the girls started doing each other’s hair and putting on makeup. By midnight two girls were in tears, who knows why. By 1 a.m. all were sleeping; at 6 a.m. they were outside running around playing war. It’s wasn’t until four hours later that the girls’ moms and dads started arriving to take them home. All were tired, most cranky. The hosting mom, needless to say, retreated to her bed exhausted, the rest of the weekend required for recovery.

One parent had picked her daughter up at 9:30 p.m. after the birthday festivities ended; she was the smart one. Her daughter enjoyed the party but went home to her own bed and probably had an enjoyable rest of the weekend with her family.

What is the point? If such experiences are fun for you and your children, go for it. Children definitely need opportunities to socialize in groups, but they need not involve slumber parties. Neither sleepovers nor slumber parties are appropriate before age 10 and are not required for optimal social development.

Before allowing your child to spend the night at a friend’s house, make sure you know the family well. This is true for children in late elementary school and teenagers.

Watch it with teens, as they will sometimes request to spend the night at a friend’s home whose parents may be more permissive than you.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at janfaull@aol.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists