How Monkeys Taught Me to Appreciate Teen Sleepovers

One of our chief jobs as parents is to encourage our kids to make and maintain strong friendships. It is one of the skills they will need most in life.

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“Can we have a sleepover?” Barring anything involving fire, blood or hospitals, these five words are the ones I dread most as a parent. Sleepovers tend to involve too much noise and junk food and too little sleep.

And yet, after spending the last few years researching and writing a book about the science of friendship, I am looking with fresh eyes at sleepovers, video games and many of the other ways children and teenagers like to spend their time together. I’ve realized that the critical thing is exactly that: that they spend time together. One of our chief jobs as parents is to encourage them to make and maintain strong friendships. It is one of the skills they will need most in life.

My epiphany came from a reporting trip when I spent a week at a monkey colony in Puerto Rico watching rhesus macaques socialize. The animals sit close together and groom one another, strengthening their bonds. The primatologists charting this behavior are like exacting gossip columnists — recording who does what to whom and what happens as a result. Researchers have found that the monkeys with the strongest social bonds — with quality friendships — turn out to have more and healthier babies and to live longer. In evolutionary terms, you can’t do better than that.

I came home to Brooklyn and found my oldest son hanging on the couch with his best friend playing the video game NBA2K. It felt as if they had not moved while I was away. Granted, they had just graduated from high school, and had earned some downtime. And yes, I knew that they did, in fact, get outside to play basketball, too.

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