Dear Dr Justin,
My husband and I have decided that our children won’t have sleepovers until they’re at least 10. We’ve heard too many stories about kids being molested or exposed to pornography. Even if nothing bad happens, they stay up late and write themselves off with tiredness. But with the school holidays, our 8 and 6 year old children are both pestering us. Do we give in? Or hold firm?
Make no mistake, there are many dreadful stories of abuse or pornography exposure, or any number of other frightening things that can happen at sleepovers. The Internet is alive and crawling with thousands of examples of mum-bloggers cautioning parents to not let their kids have sleepovers. Advice is given about how we can check out the house of the would-be supervising parents, and how to have the tough conversations with them to ensure your child is safe and can come home as soon as he or she feels uncomfortable.
Statistics also show, clearly, that the likelihood of harm coming to our children is much greater when they are with someone trusted and known than someone who is a stranger to them. Thus, the fear of sleepovers is entirely understandable.
I used to subscribe to it myself, and… my kids missed out on great times with friends as a result.
I have shifted my position in recent years. This is not based on any research about sleepovers; because there really aren’t any academic studies to speak of. Sure, some research will highlight sleepovers as a potential risk, and I acknowledge the challenge and the safety concerns. But I address them differently.
Engaged parents take the time to get to know the parents who will be supervising a sleepover. A relationship and a level of trust is necessary before sleepovers are allowed.
As a family, you should decide at what age a sleepover is ok. I suggest age 7 or 8 is old enough to start sleepovers, but every child responds differently to the exciting (and sometimes anxious) experiences of a sleepover. Some families have a strong trust with others and they have confident kids who are bursting to hang out with their friends, so 5 or 6 might be ok. Others may want to wait until they are older.
Other variables might include whether the sleepover is for cousins, friends from school, or a friend of a friend? Is it one child sleeping over, or a party? And who else will be staying over? Are there older brothers, uncles, or other family staying over as well?
Protecting Children at Sleepovers
Rather than forbidding sleepovers, parents can teach children about being safe, and encourage clear and open communication.
Specifically, children need to know:
- Body Safety
Teach your child that no one should ever touch them anywhere that is covered by their swimwear. The only exception to this is mum or dad (or caregiver), or a doctor. And it should only be for hygiene or medical reasons.
Teach your child that some people will offer treats, bribes, or threats. And they will demand that some touching is a ‘secret’. Sometimes they’ll even threaten to hurt others, including your child, or even you as a parent. Children should understand that secrets aren’t ok, and no matter what someone says is a secret, you will never get them in trouble for sharing something like that.
- Communication Channels
Children must know they can talk to you at anytime about anything. This includes while they’re at a sleepover.
- Clear Boundaries
Before sleepovers, let your children know that computers and other screens should be off-limits at a particular hour you both agree on. Talk about appropriate and inappropriate content. Help them to understand safe and healthy decisions.
Is the world really that scary?
I hate that the first thing people think of when sleepovers comes up in conversation is child molestation. The world is safer today than ever before. Yes, tragic things happen. But raising our children in a culture of fear is unhealthy and unhelpful.
When we overdo it with limits to sleepovers (or playing outside, or catching the bus to school, or whatever), we teach our children that the world is scary and unsafe, and that people aren’t trustworthy. We create an intergenerational transfer of fear and paranoia, passing our insecurities through to our children.
Sleepovers are a thrill; a time for kids to have fun without restraining adults placing endless restrictions on them. They’re a chance to stay up until 2am, or 4am, and talk and goof off and eat too much sugar. They’re usually a time where fond memories of childhood are created.
Do you agree? Or would you like to sleep on it?
Read more about creating strong connections and open channels of communication with your children book What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family