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Parenting for Now or Later? How Do You Decide?

Posted by Jen on March 10, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Raising Girls
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Madeleine is eleven and a half now and whether I like it or not, boys are on her radar. She's not silly or screaming or following her cues from all the media messages that tell her this should be her be-all, end-all. No, she's just aware in a new way that boys can be people who you could have deep affection for--partially in the same way she adores her friends who are girls.

So far, I think this interest is healthy and I hope all of her upcoming relationships in her teen years are just as reasonable, respectful and fun. The boys seem to be as engaged as the girls and when they do interact, the whole thing strikes me as the kind of thing you remember as innocent and fun your whole life long.

So what's the catch? Madeleine continues to ask for permission either to have one-on-one time with the boy of her choice or to host get-togethers with boys AND girls for things like dance parties and more recently, a boy/girl sleepover. I know without a shadow of a doubt that these things are totally harmless, but I have a big red neon sign flashing in the back of my mind that says six months deeper into her adolescence it will be a whole different story.

It's a common parenting dilemma, right? Go with what's just right for your child's development right now and make adjustments to your strategy later or hold back (or push ahead) because you see what'll be better for their development right around the corner?

In the past, I've always been inclined to go with what's best for my kids in the moment. I didn't smack my toddlers hands when they touched the Christmas tree ornaments because I knew experiencing things in a tactile way was key to their development; I simply redirected their attention instead. I didn't fuss when my three and four year olds showed signs of being the world's most creative cross-dressers because I knew that trying on different roles and identities was a essential for them establishing their sense of self.

These were (in some circles) controversial parenting decisions I made at the time because let's face it--it's hard to be that parent whose baby is all up in the Christmas tree or the one whose adorable boy is showing up to preschool in Mardi Gras beads and Cinderella shoes. But I let things go and reined my kids in on certain things when they were old enough to do things a different way--Mardi Gras beads still excepted.

Now sticking to that plan feels a little more loaded. Boy/girl sleepover? I've read the more normal, non-sexualized interaction kids have across gender in pre-adolescence, the more healthily they re-meet one another across the big divide. But the hassle of reversing the precedent and saying no in a year or two (who wants to monitor a houseful of 13 year old boys and girls in the middle of the night?) sounds like a nightmare, too.

What do you think? I'm especially interested in hearing from parents on the issue of doing what's right for your kids right now or getting them ready for what's around the bend--even if it means sacrificing what's currently best for their development.


Lisa writes...

Have the sleepover now while it's non-sexualized! You point about the more normal, non-sexualized interactions between boys and girls have in the pre-teen years the better they interact later on is key.

My daughters are 7, 5, and almost 3. I'm getting glimpses of the truth behind the parenting phrase "bigger kids, bigger problems", noticing differences being the big one right now. My middle daughter lost all of her hair to alopecia areata when she was two, and it's never grown back. In that experience, it was so clear to me from the start how much impact my actions would have on sending her healthy or unhealthy messages about self-image. It was if the whole thing was happening to someone else, because none of it triggered and unresolved or hurt feelings of my own from my own growing-up. However, things with my oldest daughter are not so clear. I worry about her making friends and being happy. I worry about her trusting me and being responsible. I worry that in addition to her college fund, I should be saving for her therapy.

Your post gave me some relief from that worry. I've been so wrapped up with worry that I haven't listened much to my gut or my heart. Somehow your post connected the dots for me that the clarity with which I understood my five-year-old's situation had lessons I could apply to my other daughters. Thanks!

Ria writes...

Go for it! Then ask me again in 3 years when my girl is 11! :)

For me, this isn't an all or nothing decision. I think I would be okay with it with certain boys and certain circumstances. I remember all the fun times I had growing up with my boy cousins or about trips with our bestest friends and their kids (some of which are boys) as our kids grow up together. There will be sleep-overs then and they're not going to stay 8 and 6 forever.

I would NOT be okay with a dozen girls and boys having a big slumber party at my house.

I would be okay with having a boy friend over.

jacki writes...

If you start letting your children participate in even a harmless boy/girl sleep over how will you ever explain when they are 15-16 that they can't any longer because now you don't trust them anymore?

I would not go there- sorry...stick with sleepovers perhaps in the family but not strangers. Too much teen pregnancy...there is so much kids don't understand and it only takes one know it all kid to ruin all of the innocence & change everything forever.

Jean writes...

I agree with your parenting method. My 5yo son went to daycare wearing Hello Kitty socks.

Some comments have helped me refine my stance on this issue:

You say: I've read the more normal, non-sexualized interaction kids have across gender in pre-adolescence, the more healthily they re-meet one another across the big divide.

That's great insight. I hadn't come across that bit of information before, and it rings true for me.

Ria: For me, this isn't an all or nothing decision. I think I would be okay with it with certain boys and certain circumstances.

I agree. Every child responds differently to any given situation. Understand your child, and you can better guide which activities are acceptable and which are not.

Jacki: If you start letting your children participate in even a harmless boy/girl sleep over how will you ever explain when they are 15-16 that they can't any longer because now you don't trust them anymore?

I think this issue is best addressed by explaining that as your children get older, hormones and attitudes change, and therefore, approaches to the same situation will also change. What might be acceptable now, might not be acceptable in the future.

Having sleepovers now, while they're still enjoying the innocence of their ages is a great idea, helping to build trustworthy relationships with their peer group of both sexes. When they become teenagers, it will be a natural, gradual change that their actions will need to be monitored a bit more. Having a talk about sexuality and hormones should easily underscore the change in policy regarding sleepovers.

I don't think that it's hypocritical to change your mind as they become teenagers. Allow them the intelligence to understand your reasons; explain why extra caution on your part will help them become healthy, responsible adults.

Betsy writes...

I did not even know that boy/girl sleepovers were a consideration. I have three teenage boys (my youngest is 12) and I can see no reason why boys and girls would have a sleepover together, unless the kids were all cousins. Boys and girls being together during the day is desirable, but what would the benefit be for them to sleep together at a party? They are able to bond and interact throughout the day, but I feel it would be very inappropriate to allow a coed sleepover. Is the parent in charge willing to stay awake all night and supervise the children? A child's virtue should always be our first concern.

Anji writes...

Does this mean no same-sex sleepovers either then? There seems to be a certain heterocentricity in assuming that the only sexual exploration happens between children/teenagers of opposite sexes...

Joy writes...

My "now or later" issue is enforcing limits vs. learning to observe limits.

My son in his pre-teen years established a pattern of REFUSING to limit his behavior, and has not progressed beyond that. He won't stay in the yard, so after repeated violations, repeated consequences, and no change in behavior I took away the choice by forcing him to stay in the house. He won't eat only his share of ice cream, so after repeated violations, repeated consequences, and no change in behavior I force the issue by no longer buying ice cream. There are many far more serious issues, but those are the simplest.

The now or later issue is that when he's an adult and there's no one around to force him, I know he won't have learned the skills to do it himself. At which point, he'll go nuts with potential serious consequences. So do I continue to force him now to keep my sanity (and keep him under control), or do I let him go nuts now and let the chips fall, so to speak, knowing he'll experience the potentially permanent results of his refusal to limit?

Advice anyone?

Jess writes...

Jen, I'm way behind you, since my oldest son is only 7 so far (and having a co-ed sleepover with his best friend/girlfriend soon), but I absolutely think going with your gut and parenting the child in front of you rather than basing decisions on "what if" worries about the future is the way to go.

I recently was part of an incredible group discussion about children, sex, and sexuality that centered on the book Sex & Sensibility (Deborah Roffman). I highly recommend it as a resource for helping tease out the complex issues surrounding these parenting decisions!

Karen writes...

My oldest is 14, and that new interest in boys you're seeing at 11-- it's indeed normal but it's too simplistic to call it "non-sexualized." It's still new and young, but it's the beginning of things to come. By middle school, kids fully know there is something different about girl/boy friendships, and so to me a coed sleepover at 11 is hardly more appropriate than it would be at 16. So, I think the now/later question is a very good one, but I'm not sure if it applies to this issue.

Karen writes...

Joy, I feel your pain. I don't know how old your son is, but I have sons who are 1, 10 and 11. My 10 year old struggles with making good decisions.

I would just encourage you to think about what you want to teach him: that you have the power to control him and make him suffer, or that he has the power to control himself and the smarts to deal with the responsibilities that come with that power? We've all met the man who can't grow up because he's still fighting with his mother to prove that he's powerful and autonomous. I don't want my boys to be those men, and I think this lifelong power issue starts earlier than we realize.

It sounds like your son is telling you he wants more freedom to make his own decisions. The trick that has worked for us is to make sure the freedom comes with all the responsibility that you can logically ,and respectfully manage to attach to it. If wants to eat all the ice cream, then he can buy more for the rest of the family from his allowance. (Even the suggestion of this was enough to get my son to immediately stop using whole bottles of my shampoo for bubble bath.) If he wants the freedom to leave the yard, he needs to tell you where he's going, like a mature member of the family, and then he can take out the trash on his way out, and then take a letter to the mailbox on the corner or deliver a message to a neighbor for you.

Beth writes...

I would NOT allow a boy/girl sleepover at this age for sure! Eleven year olds get pregnant too! Just because you don't THINK anything will happen, or think your kids aren't into that yet, you have no control over it. I had some kids tell my 9 year old niece all about sex last month. It is happening before they are 11, and you are naive if you think it's ok to have a coed sleepover. Even if it's not your kid that's knowledgeable about sex, some other kid there will know.

Kati writes...

Keeping in mind that even same-sex sleepovers at an older age can have their own hormonal undertones (a good friend of mine tried to kiss me when we were ~14 or 15)...

I think the more important thing is to say yes to the innocence and then set a boundary. Perhaps boys sleep in one room and girls in another. Assuming, of course, that the other parents are okay with the whole thing.

Another option to chill it all out is that you could always invite the other family to spend the night -- we do this with good friends and it's fantastic!

struggling teens writes...

If you start letting your children participate in even a harmless boy/girl sleep over how will you ever explain when they are 15-16 that they can't any longer because now you don't trust them anymore?

Cassie writes...

I'm not a parent myself, but I am an older cousin to a 12 year old girl (who, like the majority of her friends, thinks she's 16.) Because I'm younger, she fortunately still considers me cool, and thus safe to confide in, and with the information she's given me, I strongly urge you not to proceed forth with the coed sleepover.

I've seen text messages from boys that were suggestive and even lewd. They actually were in her friend's phone (shown to me by her friend, I wasn't snooping!) To my knowledge, my younger cousin hasn't recieved any such texts, but clearly that talk is going around. It's on their minds. And they're only 11 and 12.

My cousin is a straight A student, an amazing athlete, and in my opinion, a very well rounded and mature kid, but she is definitely surrounded by over- sexualization at a frighteningly young age. I'm 21, and I disheartedly dissaprove. It's possible that it's merely talk, but I would never, ever be so naive as to host an all nighter that could result in something more. 11 years old is truly not that innocent anymore, especially with all that's reflected in the media and what not.

lankel writes...

I am a concerned parent and have a 12 year old girl. It is definitely not a good idea for kids so young to go for sleepover. As the commenter above pointed out how will you ensure that nothing happens when kids grow up.

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