While it can be hard to watch your children head off for sleepovers, sleepaway camp or even Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a few nights, such an event is a healthy and important step, says clinical psychologist Maureen Monaghan of Children’s National Medical Center.
“I think it is a great idea to give kids an experience of being on their own in a structured, supportive, supervised environment,” she says. The time away from parents provides an excellent opportunity for even young children to take initiative, exercise their autonomy and develop leadership, problem-solving and social skills, which often builds self-esteem, she explains. “Even just one night away from parents can be valuable. . . . It definitely challenges kids — it takes them out of their comfort environment — but it’s usually really positive, and we see a lot of growth and maturing.”
To learn more, I spoke with psychologist Michael Thompson, author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow
,” about letting your kids go away and the associated benefits for the whole family:
Why is it so hard for today’s parents to separate from their children, at any age?
This generation of parents has invested an enormous amount of time in being emotionally close with their children and having very deep attachments. They’ve also invested an enormous amount in protecting their children from trauma. We have doubled the amount of time spent with children in the last 20 years. When you’re all in, it’s hard to step out — it’s just that simple.
Even though it can be difficult to send kids off to a sleepover or a full summer of camp, why is it valuable?
At some point, all children are going to have to be independent, and a safe place to practice that is camp, although we’re also talking about overnight school trips, boarding school, even a week at a relative’s house. A big, developmentally appropriate step for independence is sleeping away from your parents.
When you face challenges away from your parents, you know the victory belongs to you alone. If you are, in fact, homesick and you overcome it — which the vast majority of children do — it means that YOU beat it. It was painful, and you beat it. If you were uncomfortable on a canoe trip, a trail ride, a long hike, you know that you got through it: You either sucked it up on your own or got comfort from your friends or counselors, but it’s your achievement.
Okay, so you got stung by a bee: It was scary and painful, but you got over it and you recovered, which means that you can deal with all the bees in the world without your mom — the bees being a metaphor, of course, for all of the challenges in life. How do you know what makes you strong if Mom is always fetching your shoe out of the mud or standing there saying, “Oh, it’s not so bad”?