Should I Let My Gender-Creative Son Have Co-Ed Sleepovers?

C.J., left, who identifies as ‘gender nonconforming,’ with his best friend and sleepover buddy, Grace. (Photo: Lori Duron)

“Mom, how come I never get invited to sleepovers?” my first grader asked from the backseat as we drove home from school one day last year. “Hannah had one and then Emma had one and now Olivia is having one and I never get invited." 

My heart sank a little, because I always knew this line of questioning would come someday, and I also knew the chances of my child being invited to a sleepover were slim to none. My son’s friends have always been girls, and co-ed sleepovers for kids are typically frowned upon by society — or at least by the conservative, image-conscious part of South Orange County in which we live.

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As my eight-year-old son C.J. explains it, he’s a boy who only likes girl things and wants to be treated like a girl. He says he’s not transgender, and self-identifies as “gender nonconforming.” My husband and I think he’s gender courageous.  

As we navigate this unique parenting journey, we don’t always have quick answers to C.J.’s questions.

Is it okay for boys and girls to have sleepovers together? I searched for an answer online and got sucked into the Internet debate, which seemed to heavily favor the answer no. But most of those arguments were focused on co-ed sleepovers for teens and warned of hormonal takeovers, losses of virginity and alcohol consumption. 

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My son didn’t want to throw a rager and make bad decisions; he simply wanted to have one of his best friends in his room to giggle the night away. He wanted to innocently experience a childhood right of passage. 

I brought the subject up to Darlene Tando, a licensed clinical social worker and gender therapist. “Sleepovers bond kids together,” she told me. “Seeing each other outside of their normal social setting helps to solidify friendships and teaches kids how to relate to others. All kids want that special bond with friends who share the same interests and they should have that opportunity, regardless of their gender.” 

Best friends and second-graders CJ, right, and Grace. (Photo: Lori Duron)

My husband and I shouldn’t worry about our stance on co-ed sleepovers in general, Tando said. We should only decide how we feel about co-ed sleepovers for C.J. “Parents should follow their gut and grant sleepovers on a case-by-case basis,” she explained. “They have to consider the developmental stage and wellbeing of their child and the trustworthiness of the adult who will be supervising the sleepover. But, all of those considerations are for all sleepovers — not just the co-ed kind.”

My husband and I decided that we were fine with co-ed sleepovers; we just had to find like-minded parents.  

I called my best friend, who is the mother of C.J.’s best friend, Grace. 

"C.J. is sad because he never gets invited to sleepovers at his girl friends’ houses…,” I started.

“When do you want him to have a sleepover with Grace? Or, Grace could host a sleepover with her friends and he could come. Or….”

That’s why I love my best friend. When I’m sad, she works to make me happy, and she’s never been anything but unconditionally loving and supportive of C.J. and his gender nonconformity. It doesn’t hurt that she has fond childhood memories of having sleepovers with her boy best friend.

The following weekend, C.J. was waiting at the window an hour before Grace’s expected arrival for their first sleepover. He had carefully made his Monster High bed, as well as the trundle bed Grace would sleep on. He’d gone with me to the store to pick out snacks (pink lemonade, cookies with pink icing and strawberries). He dressed and redressed his American Girl doll so she’d be ready for the sleepover, too. 

Grace arrived buzzing with energy, carrying an overnight bag, a pillow and her own American Girl doll.

The night fulfilled C.J.’s wildest dreams and I didn’t mind telling the two of them to “keep it down” as they giggled until the clock struck midnight. The sound of laughter between best friends warmed my heart, because I was afraid it was one C.J. would never get to make.

A year later, with C.J. and Grace both in second grade, I’m not as thrilled with the giggles that go on far past their bedtimes. The novelty has worn off for me because I like to sleep more than I like to do just about anything.  

But the novelty hasn’t worn off for the kids. They still like to put on their jammies (a nightgown for C.J., tank and pajama pants for Grace), paint their nails, do their dolls’ hair and dance to Taylor Swift.

When I peek into C.J.’s room after they finally fall asleep, most of the time they are in separate beds, but a few times I’ve been surprised to find them lying together. “Adults often project adult issues onto children. Sleepovers aren’t about sex or sexuality or romance,” Tando told me. “Sleepovers are about friendship, especially at C.J.’s age.” 

I find myself wondering how long it will it be okay for my son to have sleepovers with his best girl friend. Will he ever get an official invite to a full-fledged slumber party?

Statistically speaking, C.J. has a very high likelihood of identifying as transgender or gay in the years ahead. Is it okay for a gay boy to attend all-girl sleepovers? How would other parents feel about it? How would they feel if a transgender girl attended their daughter’s sleepover? 

These are the questions that linger in the back of my mind, unanswered, as I remind myself to stay focused on C.J.’s current happiness and his amazing friendship with Grace. Parenting C.J. has taught me that I can’t let worrying about tomorrow ruin the triumphs of today. 

For the time being, we squeeze in as many sleepovers as possible and know that our decision to allow him to have co-ed sleepovers was the right one – even though we all need a nap the next day.

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