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The Sleepover Dilemma

When she was in 7th grade, Brittni saw her first R-rated movie at a sleepover, though she admits she spent most of the time hiding under a blanket. The first 15 minutes contained more blood and violence than she'd seen in her whole life. Even so, she managed to take something positive away from that experience. "I learned an important lesson that evening," she told us. "Moms are smart!"

Indeed they are. They know children should eat their veggies, read their Bibles, go to bed at a reasonable hour and avoid watching gory horror flicks. Which is why many moms (and dads) find sleepovers nearly as frightening as an R-rated DVD.

There's nothing inherently wrong with overnighters, which are as popular as ever with teenage girls. A survey by SC Johnson found that 54 percent of them had attended a slumber party in the past month, 29 percent in the past week. And why not? At their core, these get-togethers are about fun, friends and a little extra freedom—a chance to eat, laugh and stay up late. But in our worst imaginings, sleepovers can resemble scaled-down frat parties. We picture our treasured lumpkins watching Saw IV at 2 a.m., their brains buzzing on Twinkies, pepperoni pizza and Red Bull.

Are those fears overblown? Perhaps, but when Plugged In Online asked people to share their own sleepover experiences, we discovered that most encountered their first R-rated film during overnight stays with friends. Several added phrases such as "bleary-eyed" and "sugar buzz." One even described at length how a sleepover guest got so sick to her stomach that it necessitated an early, rather messy ride home.

But overnight gatherings needn't lead to nausea, steal your child's innocence or threaten to undermine years of good parenting. Whether it's girls doing each other's nails or boys having backyard campouts, sleepovers are fine when handled properly. That way the only people losing any sleep are the kids.

Home Sweet Home
While you can't host every all-nighter yourself, a lot of anxiety can be eliminated by keeping everything in-house. Specifically, in your house.

"Something my wife and I did throughout our kids growing up was to make our house the 'go to' place," said Focus on the Family counselor Tim Sanford. "We hosted the pizza and movie parties. We hosted the overnights. The 'cool house' doesn't just happen; parents make it happen."

One way to make it happen is by keeping the fridge stocked and bringing in cool stuff. A trampoline. Some guitar amps. That cool new video game console, along with a handful of family-friendly games. Sanford made it clear that his daughters' friends were welcome anytime. "For us, it was well worth it," he said. "It was our house, so it was our rules. We got to know our daughters' friends better. And we knew the supervision would be good."

The Schmidt family takes a similar approach. They told us they let overnight guests "jump on our trampoline in their pj's until 10:30 p.m." In the morning, visitors are greeted with stacks of chocolate chip pancakes.

Of course, even when parents take sleepovers into their own hands they can hit an unpleasant bump or two. One mom reported that she was shocked when her son's overnight guest wanted to run roughshod over her rules. "My rules are my rules," she wrote in an e-mail, "and I won't bend just because someone new is over. My son actually thanked me for trying to keep things the way that we normally do and for running our house like I do. Wow. That might be the biggest compliment I've ever received."

Out of Sight But on Your Mind
So what happens when it's another family's turn to host? Well, that's when things can get trickier.

"When it's your house, it's your rules," says Sanford. "When it's the other parents' house, it's normally their rules. It's very hard to try to enforce your rules at another parent's house when you're not there." Sanford suggests making sure that your values and sleepover strategies mesh well with those of the hosts: "By all means, [get to] know the hosting parents, feel comfortable with their house rules and how they will be supervising the children. If their rules are not acceptable to you, kindly don't allow your child to attend."

This approach works especially well when you've established sleepover parameters in advance. Work up ground rules that your child understands. That way, if plans fall through because another family's standards aren't acceptable, it's the fault of those unwilling to play by the rules rather than those who established and agreed upon those rules.

To gather information from hosts, parents may need to ask probing, even embarrassing questions about everything from who else will be in the house to whether Web surfing will be supervised. Plan to ask which DVDs are on the agenda. Then learn more about those movies right here at pluggedinonline.com and, if the content is a problem, respectfully recommend alternatives. The hosts may thank you for helping them dodge a bullet. Then again, maybe they won't.

One concerned mom told us, "The problem I have found is how to ask questions of other parents without offending them or putting them on the defensive." Her 14-year-old son was invited to spend the night at a friend's house. But when she asked about bedtime and the video games allowed in the home, the hosts took offense.

"If they feel offended, that's their problem," Sanford responds. "Asking politely and directly does not constitute judgment." He believes parents who value their children's safety can—with tact, creativity and prayer—find non-threatening ways to ask the tough questions.

What's Your Comfort Level?
Of course, parents may not feel comfortable with their children sleeping at someone else's house, period. Perhaps you and your teen have trust issues. Or maybe your family has been burned by past sleepovers. As a compromise, some families prefer a "late-over," where they pick up the child at 10 p.m. or midnight. For a mom named Linda, this has become a viable option. She told us, "The kids still get to stay up late and experience some of the fun and independence in a party setting without the overnight mess of frozen underwear and a night of no sleep."

Frozen underwear?

Whether to allow sleepovers is, naturally, a family decision. Even with the best of intentions and rigorous planning, the unexpected can happen. Sanford cautions that parents may be forced into unforeseen "teaching moments" because of them. It can be hard, for example, for an 11-year-old girl to say no to a forbidden PG-13 flick when five of her friends want to watch it.

As unfortunate as those occurrences are, they give parents a chance to talk to children about important issues. Not just issues related to the movie itself (though it's good to have those talks, too), but peripheral subjects such as peer pressure, the dynamics of group-think, and ways to say no and still save face. Start by sharing the example of a wise, principled teen named Moriah. When her friends viewed a questionable film, she opted to sit in the hallway and read her Bible. "This was one of my first sleepovers," she told us. "It felt really good to stand up."

Another teen, Rose, elected to play with her friend's kitten rather than see an R-rated DVD. Now in college, she's glad that happened. "It's true those pressures can be there," Rose said, "but it's an opportunity for your child to grow."

Caitlin, on the other hand, watched a crass film at a high school sleepover. She regretted it later. But instead of fueling bad media habits, that mistake actually formed a crucible through which she now makes choices about what to watch or avoid. That skill has proven particularly helpful while away at college, where she says dorm life can be like "a 24/7 sleepover."

"I made the decision to just walk away if the situation ever came up," Caitlin explained, "and I'm proud to say that thus far it has worked. And it was a welcome surprise that none of my new friends have thought any less of me for doing it, something I was not wholly expecting. I'm so glad I learned at that sleepover that I needed to assert myself, even with good friends."

OK everybody, that's enough for now. It's lights-out time. Rest well.

Published June 2008

Plugged In Plus

Ever since this article was published, we've received many thanks and personal testimonies from parents facing their own sleepover dilemmas. Here's one mom's story, which may resonate with families experiencing a similar challenge:

"My 10-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party sleepover recently by a close friend who lives across the street part-time. At first glance it seemed pretty innocent. But then I did some digging. The party was being held at the girl's 'other' home, hosted by her mom and stepdad, whom I'd never met. The only knowledge I had of them was that they wouldn't allow their daughter to attend church with us because they don't want her to learn about God. Frankly, I'd been a little concerned that this girl was beginning to have more of a negative influence on our daughter than our daughter was having a positive impact on her. I also learned that they were planning to show a movie at the party that I felt was not age-appropriate. All things considered, I knew what I needed to do, but worried that my daughter might not understand.

Fortunately, God presented me with a window of opportunity to broach the subject with my daughter. We were both in good spirits, making chocolate chip cookies for her church group. Before I could even get to my main point, she chimed in, 'I think I know what you're going to say.' Sure enough, she did. And more amazingly, she knew exactly why I didn't feel comfortable having her attend the sleepover. With a maturity not always evident in my young tweener, she recognized that choosing to please God with her life is more important than finding pleasure in the moment, or trying to please friends. I was immensely proud. It also reminded me of my own need to put God first in all things.

Would you believe that her girlfriend called just minutes later? My daughter graciously explained that she wouldn't be able to make it. Relief flooded my heart, not just because the issue was finally settled, but because of the lesson we both learned from the experience. You know, as much as I enjoy reading helpful articles and great parenting advice, sometimes God needs to walk us through difficult situations personally in order to help us grow." —Amy, Colorado Springs, CO