Parents Talk Back

Parents Talk Back: Sleepovers worry today's parents

April 21, 2014 

The mom felt as nervous picking up the phone as if she had been transported back to middle school and was calling a hot crush.

Was she overstepping? Would she sound like a freak for asking such questions?

But she called and had the potentially awkward conversation anyway. Her social butterfly tween daughter had been invited to a sleepover, and she barely knew the parents. She wasn’t comfortable sending her daughter, but she also didn’t relish being the bad guy – the only parent who says no.

Sleepovers, long seen as a childhood rite of passage, are under renewed scrutiny by parents weighing the risks.

Even the smartest and best-raised children make stupid mistakes. It’s part of growing up. But the consequences of a small lapse in judgment – much more likely in a group-think gaggle – seem much greater than they once were.

This mom wanted to know what kind of rules the other parents would enforce about cellphones and Internet use during the sleepover.

What happens if smartphones come out late at night, and the girls start taking selfies? YouTube is littered with questionable videos taken at tween- or teen-aged sleepovers.

The hosting mother said she keeps tabs on what her daughter does, but she couldn’t control what the other girls might do.

This isn’t the only sensitive topic that can come up in a conversation about a child spending the night away from home.

There are the concerns that have always been around: Who else will be in the house? How will siblings, other relatives and friends interact with the guests? Are there guns in the house? Will they be locked away while children are over?

In an era of two-working-parent households, fewer people know their neighbors and families are more mobile than ever. Odds are good that your child will have a friend whose parents you know superficially, at best.

These kinds of personal questions are difficult to ask, but the etiquette of sleepover permission-granting has changed. It’s not rude to ask hosting parents how they would handle certain situations.

We have a pretty high bar for houses where our children are allowed to sleep over. When my 9-year-old son was invited to spend the night for a friend’s birthday party, the hosting mom messaged me to see if I had any questions. We’ve known the family socially for years, and I knew nearly all of the children who would be attending.

Still, I was hesitant. She said she is reluctant about sleepovers, too, and volunteered answers to concerns she would have if she were in my position: There would be no other adults in the house other than her and her husband; they didn’t own any guns; they planned to keep watch to make sure no child was being left out or bullied.

Hearing her articulate the same sorts of concerns reassured me.

We can’t bubble-wrap our children and protect them from every conceivable risk in the world. But there’s the mental calculation we do each time: Is the benefit to my child worth the risk?

There’s a contingent of parents who impose an outright ban on all sleepovers, and a laissez-faire crowd who allow almost every request.

Those in the middle should not be afraid to ask questions, nor should we be offended if we are asked in return.

The mom who made the original phone call to ask about technology use said the conversation prompted her to come up with a rule when she hosts sleepovers. She lets the guests know they need to check their tablets and phones at the door when they arrive, so there are no opportunities for impulsive selfies and texting.

“Maybe I’ll start a new parenting trend,” she said.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.

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