Unless you have been under a very large rock lately, you must have felt the buzz vibrating from "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom." This best-selling book (New York: Penguin Press, 2011) by Amy Chua, a Yale University law professor, describes her Chinese-influenced parenting style that demands academic excellence and expects hours of practice with a musical instrument. The book has triggered lively debates: Most of the reaction here in the United States has been negative.
A frequent criticism has been that the Tiger Mom’s parenting style leaves little time for play and the creativity it can generate. One of the most often cited examples of Ms. Chua’s curmudgeonly style is that she forbids her daughters from participating in sleepovers. Now I admit that I haven’t read her book, nor do I plan to, because it doesn’t sound like I will find much in it I can agree with.
However, anyone who is in favor of banning sleepovers must have at least one screw properly tightened.
Four decades of professional and parental observations have made it very clear that sleepovers have a serious downside. First, let’s talk about the term itself. How can any adult in his or her right mind expect a child spending the night in a strange place with a peer or peers whispering-distance away go to sleep? Even worse is the term "slumber party." During my residency I nodded off during some very boring dinner parties hosted by well-meaning instructors. But in general, "slumber" and "party" are two words that really don’t belong in the same sentence.
It is the rare child who can survive the day following a slumber party without being seriously sleep deprived. Depending on the individual child’s stamina and manner of expressing fatigue, the symptoms can run from being simply mildly cranky to being knocked off her feet with a blistering migraine headache. I can recall in the case of my daughters that they were basically nonfunctional for the next 18-24 hours.
It is easy to understand why a Tiger Mom who was expecting a full day of piano practice and algebra exercises from her daughter would be upset. In our house, these days lost to sleep deprivation meant that any family activities we had planned for the rest of the weekend had to be suspended. The alternative was to run the significant risk that we would have a cranky and tearful preteen on our hands.
When I’m offered the chance to comment on sleepovers, I make it clear to parents that I’m not wild about them. But I try to be fair and point out that they must weigh the upside of social interaction with the downside that will depend on how their child reacts to sleep deprivation.
For a child with lingering separation anxiety or nocturnal enuresis, an invitation to a sleepover presents a different and at times uncomfortable dilemma. On one hand, he would desperately like to join his peers in an event he believes will be fun. On the other hand is the worry that he will be embarrassed if his vulnerabilities are exposed. Some of these children have clever and caring parents who can coordinate cover-up strategies with the host family to keep the pull-up secret alive.
Some lucky children can feign disappointment as they report, "My mother is one those evil Tiger Moms and she won’t let me do sleepovers or have any fun at all."
Dr. Wilkoff practices general pediatrics in a multispecialty group practice in Brunswick, Maine. E-mail him at email@example.com.