"5-Year-Old Sleeping With Dad"
: My granddaughter is five-years-old. She moved directly from the crib to her parent's bed, where she is still sleeping. She will not sleep in her own bed. My son is now separated from his wife and has primary custody of the child. My granddaughter continues to sleep with her father. I am concerned with the effect this may have on my granddaughter for the future. Can this arrangement create future emotional problems for her or is it a positive emotional influence? My son is 38 and an excellent single parent who spends quality time with his child. I do not want to be the advice-giving mother in an area where I am not qualified to offer advice, however, at the same time, it is of concern to me. Thanks for your help.
It can be so tricky to be in the role of grandmother. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and your concern for both your son and your granddaughter. There are several issues to consider in this situation. Your granddaughter and son have just gone through a big change. It is probably a stressful time for them both and because of that, now is not a good time to make a change in sleeping arrangements. The other main issues to consider have to do with your granddaughter having an opportunity to develop the skill and confidence to sleep on her own, the question of whose needs are being met in the sleeping arrangement, and the assumptions that are made in our society about dads sleeping with their children. Here are some ways to think about and address these issues.
. Build your granddaughter's confidence. Many families share some form of a family bed. It provides closeness, time together, and a sense of safety. Contrary to some popular beliefs, most of the children who sleep in family beds have plenty of other opportunities to develop a sense of independence. In this culture, however, it can be important for children, sometime during the early elementary years, to have a chance to develop the skill of putting themselves to sleep and the knowledge that they can sleep on their own. This doesn't mean that they never climb in bed with their parents, but it means that they have some space, time and support to develop an option for sleeping on their own.
As a grandmother, you can also provide activities and experience which give your granddaughter a chance to learn new skills and develop competence, in other areas besides sleep. Do you have hobbies that you could do with her? Gardening? Cooking? Knitting? Woodworking? Bike riding? Any time children have an opportunity to learn a new skill, there is an accompanying sense of confidence that goes along with it.
As far as the sleeping arrangement in your son's home, here are some things to consider:
. Think about whose needs are being met. This can be a very confusing issue. For many families, a family bed, where parents and children sleep together, is enjoyable for all involved. The sound of a child's sleep breathing, the warmth and calm of their bodies, and waking up together are sweet gifts to parents. It is important, however, to separate out your son's own needs from those of his child. It is difficult to think about what is best for the child if your son, as an adult, has many of his own unmet needs. Many single parents, as well as parents who are in a couple, are not adequately getting their needs for adult companionship-or touch-met. You son needs to be aware of this so he can find other sources of comfort for himself. This will help ensure that his choice of sleeping arrangements isn't based on his own unmet needs for intimacy.
. Dealing with societal pressure. Dads who are active, involved parents, especially in the caregiving aspects of parenting, are still somewhat of an anomaly. Your son is likely to get all kinds of responses from his friends and community for being a single parent. Some people will overwhelmingly admire him, as if he is the first person ever to be a single parent (single mothers, however, are taken for granted or belittled) and others may be suspicious of a man who is nurturing and attentive to a young child, especially a girl. Whatever the response, he will most likely be in the public eye. It is important that he continues to be the wonderful parent he is and also be realistically aware of the areas in which he is the most vulnerable to criticism or attack. If he continues to sleep with his daughter for the next few years, his parenting may be called into question.
. Issues for single parents who sleep with their children. The other issue to consider, aside from outside pressure, are the dynamics of a parent's and child's relationship when they sleep with each other, when a second parent is not involved. Your granddaughter may develop some idea that her relationship with her father is, and should be, the single and only relationship in her father's life. Even though this may not seem like a problem if your son is not dating or thinking about dating, it could be a problem at the point that he becomes interested in developing other adult relationships. Further, children in this situation can sometimes develop a misconceived notion of their relationship with their parent, becoming overly dependent or possessive. Sleeping together is not necessarily the pivotal factor in this dynamic, but it is one of several which are important to consider.
. Thinking about the whole relationship. Given that there are several complex factors to consider in parents and children sleeping together, it is essential to take into consideration the whole relationship. Do your son and granddaughter both have outside interests and friendships, aside from each other? Can your granddaughter comfortably spend time away from her dad with other family members or friends? (This may be harder immediately following a divorce.) Does Dad encourage his daughter's independence and autonomy in other ways? Does he welcome her closeness and bonding with other appropriate adults? Is Dad able to develop healthy relationships with adult women? These kinds of questions can help you assess the health of the relationship as a whole.
If you sense a relationship between your son and your granddaughter that is exclusive, secretive, or just "doesn't feel right," it's important to be aware of the possibility of unhealthy dynamics or inappropriate behavior on your son's part. If you sense that something is wrong, it's important that you talk to your son and get your granddaughter some outside help with a trusted adult. However, it is equally important not to jump to the conclusion that something is wrong just because your son and his daughter are close.
. Making change gradually. If your son decides that he would eventually like to help his daughter learn to sleep on her own, it is important to remember that gradual change works the best for children. He could set up a separate bed for her close to his, or he could spend time with her in her bed before she goes to sleep, and then move back to his own bed. Again, he should probably wait at least several months, until his daughter has settled in with the separation, before making any other big changes in her routine.
. Getting support. Your son is in a challenging situation; going through a separation and becoming a single parent. He has you on his side and it is important that he have as much other support as possible-from other parents, dads, family members and from professionals, such as therapists or counselors. Your granddaughter is also going through a challenging time. Any support you can give her directly by spending time with her or by helping to arrange counseling for her would also be useful. (Counseling or play therapy isn't always necessary during this kind of a family change, however, it is important to keep it in mind as a resource, either immediately after a separation, or down the road if things get more difficult.)
For more on family beds, see A Family Bed?