Food for Thought: When should kids be away from their parents?

This post, “A Surprising Tradition for German Toddlers,” recently caught my attention (and apparently that of many other people based on the 192 comments!). It describes the common practice in Germany of going on a three-day trip without one’s parents…at the age of THREE. The child’s daycare center sets up the annual trip, which may include taking the train to a farm, and helps the kids get used to being away by having them sleep over one night at the daycare center first.

Then, in the comments, a range of people expressed fascination with this tradition, from wishing that we Americans would encourage our kids to be more independent to wondering how German parents could deal with such a separation when the child is just a toddler. This got me thinking about modern-day childhood and independence. Actually, I’ve faced these topics as a parent letting go of control while my older son traveled without us this past year.

When should kids be away from their parents?

I didn’t think I was ready for my son to go away without us.

The Waldorf approach:

As Noah started second grade, just 3 weeks after turning 7, he began attending a public Waldorf school. If you’re not familiar with the Waldorf approach to education, you might not know that becoming “citizens of the world” and spending time in nature are tenets of the Waldorf curriculum. These play out in a variety of ways over the years–an outdoor kindergarten, weekly nature walks, class hikes, learning farming and building shelters, and, yes, overnight class trips (the bane of helicopter parenting!).

In my son’s school, the overnight trips begin in 3rd grade and increase in length with each year, building up to a week away without any parent chaperones in 8th grade. I have to admit that even though I love his school, um, I’ve had reservations about some of this.

When should kids be away from their parents?

The test:

This past spring, our readiness was put to the test with a series of new experiences: Noah’s first sleepover invitations, his first overnight trip with his class, and our first time traveling without our two boys. I spent months worrying about the overnight camping trip, knowing that I would not be able to chaperone due to my work schedule and wondering how it would all turn out. The fact that he’s the youngest child in his class and is very shy doesn’t help. But he wasn’t the slightest bit nervous, so we downplayed our nerves, gave him plenty of safety reminders, and hoped for the best.

As I arrived to pick Noah up from the camping trip, I saw a group of happy, albeit tired, 3rd graders. He came back a stronger, more independent and braver child, and his class returned with even tighter bonds. And memories to be proud of…memories of pitching their own tents, making their own butter, corralling loose chickens, and, best of all, playing “flashlight tag” in the pitch black darkness of night.

When should parents be away from their kids?

Soon after, he attended his first sleepover, and they slept outside in tents again (he’s now the expert camper in our family!). Two weeks later and another sleepover, this time with 8 boys (!). They didn’t sleep much, but, as he would say, “Who cares??” He went to bed extra early the next night, and while the dark circles quickly vanished, what remains is his sense of self-sufficiency and an important sense of space. He can make memories with his treasured group of friends without mom and dad watching from the sidelines.

And I mustn’t forget to mention the 5 days we spent in Hawaii without our boys. They stayed with my mom, and besides one night of crying before bed, everything went just fine.

What do you think? Are sleepovers a thing of the past? Should kids go on trips without their parents? If so, when should kids be away from their parents?

Read the first post in the Food for Thought series: “Addiction”


  • I’m already stressed out about this and my kids are about to be 3 and 5! I feel like field trips, sleepovers and even play dates are going to be a challenge at first. I recently read something about a father who spoke about how all he wanted when his kids were young was to regain some of his personal time. What he didn’t expect was the accompanying sadness he felt when he actually did get some of that time back to himself. I am sure I will learn to let go, but it’s not going to be easy.

    • Jenna says:

      Some of those things that you mention were a challenge for me at first, too. That man’s experience is a good reminder to appreciate all the time we have with our little ones. It may be a cliche, but they grow up so fast. My older son (who’s almost 9) is definitely ready for more independence and shows a bit of resentment when we control him too much. He also seems perfectly happy to be away from us for a while sometimes. This is just a peek at what I’m sure it’ll be like when he’s a teen. Ugh!

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