Reconsidering Sleepovers

by | Feb. 20, 2009

I remember sleepovers from my childhood. I was a less-active youth and didn't always have solid "do not's" from my single-parent father, which often left the door open to participate in sleepover activities that would not have occurred in my home.

I wasn't always completely sure where the line stood between OK and NOT OK, but the peer pressure and excitement surrounding the party made the choice to follow along a pretty easy one. Watching horror movies, playing with ouija boards, and sneaking out at night to meet other friends were among the activities that I would never have attempted under the watchful eye of my dad.

The lack of standards and supervision during some of these sleepovers would have been a cause for concern to all the parents involved, had they been aware. But to my single father, the reprieve from a chatty, enthusiastic, and emotional pre-teen must have been welcome. In his mind, I'm sure he thought the other parents would be as diligent as he would have been when it came to clean television, safe games, and careful supervision. Fortunately I was never hurt during any of my sleepover stunts, but I do have vivid memories of movies I shouldn't have seen and activities in which I shouldn't have participated.

I talk to my kids often about the dangers of sleepovers since our family has a fairly strict no-sleepover policy. We have had this policy supported many times over the years by the negative experiences of others.

An extreme example of the danger of sleepovers was found a few years ago in Sacramento, California. A husband, father, and elementary school teacher was sentenced to over twenty-one years in prison for committing lewd acts against children while also photographing his crimes. His victims were girls who were sleeping over at his house as guests of his daughter. He slipped drugs into their drinks in order to take advantage of them without their knowledge. The parents who entrusted their daughters to this man were shocked that this person that they admired would commit such horrible acts.

For us, the sleepover issue actually began at a stake conference fireside in late 1995. Our stake president at the time, Larry Lawrence, counseled our stake to beware of sleepovers and slumber parties. He explained that many children have drunk their first beer, sworn for the first time or lost their virtue "on a night when they did not have to look their parents in the eye when the night was over." He advised us to take comfort in knowing our families were safe under the same roof at the end of each night.

His own children (he had six) were allowed to go to sleepovers but he would pick them up around 10:00 P.M. or so instead of having them spend the night. Many times his children would be disappointed because they could not stay. They would be angry or in tears when he picked them up. Yet each child, as an adult, thanked him and his wife for that rule. As they grew older and found out what had gone on with those friends at those sleepovers, they realized and appreciated their parents' wisdom.

We decided after that meeting that we would heed his warning about sleepovers and not allow them. We have never regretted this decision. When friends have asked why we have such a policy, we can list several reasons.

Family doesn't always equal safety.

Even when it comes to family, we are cautious. I won't allow my kids to sleep at relatives' homes unless I am there too. My kids' cousins are great but I don't know who their friends are and kids can be exposed to danger so easily. There have been many stories in the news about kids being molested by family members or friends of family members.

One weekend nine years ago, Annie* from Vallejo, California had close relatives come to stay with her family. In the middle of the night, while she was sleeping upstairs, her daughter was molested by a visiting cousin. The girl was too shocked and too scared to call out and didn't relate the incident to her mother until several years later. The family was devastated that someone they loved and trusted would do such a horrible thing. Incidents like this occur every day. The typical child molester does not "look" like one; most are at least marginally adept at concealing their crimes. Studies report that over eighty percent of children are abused by someone the family knows and trusts. In fact, in a September 14, 2007 _New York Times_ article, "Disturbing Facts about Sexual Abuse," author Steve D. Levitt reported that only eight percent of abusers are strangers.  

"Long time, no see" probably warrants a hotel.

Long-time-no-see friends generally equal distant relationships that warrant hotel stays. It would be rare to hear someone whose child has become a victim say, "I knew something like this would happen. He appeared shifty and dangerous right from the start." Much more often the response is more like, "I never would have thought him capable of something like this." While one might argue that the case in Utah was an isolated incident, it's impossible to recognize a perpetrator beforehand and most victims' parents express shock and surprise upon discovering who has hurt their child. The hesitancy to offend others is understandable, but this is a risk worth taking.

Standards vary from home to home.

In Helena, Montana, Karen* allowed her young daughter to attend a friend's swimming sleepover. The father walked around the house nude while the girls were in the pool (with the nudity in full view). Karen's daughter was upset by this but wasn't sure what to do. She finally called her mom and told her what was going on. Her mother picked her up immediately. The father felt it was his home and he could do what he pleased. That's somewhat true! As a guest, your child is placed in an environment that may have standards that are drastically different from your own. If a household has decided it's okay to watch R-rated movies, would the bar be raised for your child? What if the parents feel it is acceptable to have a gun in the home and you don't? At a sleepover, kids know that the parents will go to sleep eventually; that unsupervised time is often seen by children as an opportunity to impress their friends by engaging in risky behavior.

Of course sleepovers rarely involve life-threatening situations. Often the problems are small but can be quite troublesome nonetheless. Jennifer* of Layton, Utah thought a sleepover with the neighbor's children would be a lot of fun for her five-year-old daughter Sarah. The night Sarah came home, she had trouble sleeping. Jennifer was upset to learn that the father in the home had told very scary ghost stories to the group of girls. In the name of fun, that father's actions gave Sarah nightmares for weeks. She was so terrified that she even refused to go to the bathroom alone.

Even if your child isn't sleeping over, there area always concerns when he or she visits someone else's home. One evening my son went to play at the home of a friend from Primary. He came home and described a video game they had played that was rated "M" for "Mature Audience." It was quite violent; a game I would not have allowed in our home. I was upset that he had viewed a game in which the goal was to kill as many people as possible. I had assumed that family had the same feelings about those games that I did, but I was wrong.

Sometimes other kids are the problem.

When her son asked if he could have a friend spend the night, Annette* of Springfield, Missouri agreed to the request. Later in the evening she was shocked when she walked in on them behaving extremely inappropriately. She took the boy home and told his mother what she had witnessed. The mother apologized profusely and explained that the boy had recently been molested by an uncle and was acting out that victimization.

I spoke with a woman who works for Child Protective Services. She said that CPS deals with many cases just like Annette's. Kids who have been molested may act it out on other children. The CPS worker agreed wholeheartedly that a no-sleepover policy could drastically reduce the number of these types of incidents.

When one group of LDS boys in a quiet California neighborhood got together for a sleepover, they had a great time just talking after the host parents went to bed. The conversation soon turned innocently to television. However, soon one boy began telling the others, in graphic detail, all he had seen on the pornography station after he had figured out how to access the forbidden channels on his family's satellite system. Several of the other boys told their parents what they had heard. Those parents called the storytelling boy's parents. The boy apologized and the satellite was removed, but the damage was already done. As Dallin H. Oaks has said, "The body has defenses to rid itself of unwholesome food but the brain won't vomit back filth. Once recorded, it will always remain subject to recall."

Two or more heads are not always better than one.

Sometimes when groups of kids get together, they seem to share one brain. Goofiness can lead to silliness, which can sometimes lead to some really foolish choices. It only takes one mischievous kid to get the others to commit various crimes of stupidity. Toilet papering, vandalism, and crank phone calls have all been known to occur at sleepovers in the name of fun. Most of these activities probably start out with the intention of being only harmless pranks, but some of these pranks are now considered misdemeanor crimes.

Experimentation is more likely to occur.

As my stake president shared with us all those years ago, when children know that they will not have to face their parents until the next day, they may be more likely to experiment with things they shouldn't like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. One mother of a former drug addict said that in her experience, sleepovers were how many young drug users began experimenting. Of course, the most important thing in these harmful situations is to teach our children how to stand up to peer pressure, but limiting situations in which temptation may be especially strong (like at sleepovers) is an additional helpful defense.

There is peace in knowing your family is safe at home.

The peace that comes from knowing each and every one of your children is safe at home is priceless, but that peace does not come without challenges. Children may be resentful as they hear about the fun had at a sleepover after they were made to go home. They may be angry or frustrated at "being treated like a baby." By calmly repeating your policy guidelines regarding these parties and sticking to your family's rules, your children will protest less over time. When boundaries are stated clearly and coupled with expressions of love and concern, the general responses will be positive.

Find fun sleepover solutions.

You want your kids to have fun with other kids and you understand that as they get older they enjoy the excitement of a late-night get-together. When you steer away from sleepovers, there are still lots of great late-night activities that kids will love.  

Take turns with other neighbor families hosting "lateovers" instead of sleepovers. Decide how late you're willing to supervise the kids (perhaps until around 10:00 p.m. for younger kids and until 11:00 12:00 for kids 12 and up), let them "hang out," play, chat, and watch movies--everything they would do at a regular sleepover. This way, kids can have the fun of a sleepover, but without some of the risks that can be involved in all-night events.  

Try an "earlyover" and invite your child's friend to come for an early breakfast and fun games--they can even come tin p.j.'s if they want! What a fun way to start a weekend or summer day!  

Kids love to play night games. They can be active, rambunctious, and social, and they'll probably be tired enough by the end that they'll want to go home. Here are some ideas: glow-in-the-dark volleyball, Frisbee, or soccer, glow stick tage, Marco Polo, and capture the flag.  

Girl Get-togethers

Host an "evening at the spa" and invite your daughter's friends over to do each other's hair, paint to nails, and give facials--all while chatting away and doing what comes natural to a group of young girls.  

Have a pajama party, but at this party you actually make the p.j.'s. You could either all head to a fabric store and pick out the fabric for each girl, or have each one bring her own fabric. Provide a simple pajama bottom pattern and then let them take turns sewing their pieces together. Add a little music and some sewing snacks and this will be a fun, unique party that, in the end, provides a very cute party favor.  

Hold a tear-jerker movie marathon and introduce your daughter and her girlfriends to an oldie-but-goodie. Have each girl bring her favorite romantic movie (be sure to add your own favorite to the collection and introduce them to a new favorite!). Once everyone has arrived, have the girls narrow their choices to as many movies as time allows (you may need to start this party pretty early to get the girls home at an appropriate hour). Then just pop some popcorn, put on some bunny slippers, and make sure there are plenty of tissues available!

Boy Get-togethers

Organize a video game tournament. This is not only a way to let the boys do one of their favorite activities, but it can also be a great way to show the boys that there are many fun video games available that aren't sexual or violent. Let the boys bring their favorite games and let the battles begin!  

The boys could have an action-packed movie marathon of their own. There are still many movies that are exciting and fast-paced but yet still hold an acceptable rating. Sports movies are sure to be a hit. A few great ones include Rocky, Cool Runnings, Rudy, Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot, and Miracle.

If you decide to eliminate or limit sleepovers for your family, your kids can still be safely involved in fun nighttime activities. These might require some extra effort on the part of the hosting parents, but if the families involved take turns with these responsibilities, the burden is lightened and all can share the benefit.

The outcome is worth the effort.

As parents, the safety and welfare of our families is always our main concern. We have been trusted with the sacred responsibility to not only rear our children in truth and righteousness but to protect their innocence as well. Consider the risks involved with sleepovers and carefully decide what you feel should be your family's boundaries. With precautions, we can ensure that our children grow up to be happy, healthy, and secure.

***Names have been changed.

(If you're still not convinced . . .)

-Canceling sleepovers altogether may be too extreme for you. But before you say yes, here are some tips for keeping it safe, from experts and conscientious parents alike:

-Always meet the parents beforehand--ask them about house rules and the evening's plans (how closely the kids will be supervised, etc.), telling them you assume they'd like to know yours in the same situation.

-Look at the home's location--is it in a safe area? Does it look safe and cared for?

-Reinforce your standards with your child--review how they might say politely that they don't watch certain kinds of movies or play certain games.

-Drop off your child at the door--talk with the parents and agree on a pick-up time the next day.

-Create a "safe phrase" for your child--if they want to be picked up, for any reason, they can call you and say "my stomach aches."

-Never question your child's desire to come home--if your child has had enough of the stay, tell them you'll be over immediately.