Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Sleepover Controversy

I noticed this morning that one of the recent, most-read entries over at the National Catholic Register is this piece by Matthew Archbold:

Saying No to Sleepovers

I read it and was sort of on the fence thinking he was mostly right, but also being a tad too uptight about the whole subject. But then I read all of the comments. And I have to say I'm almost at 100% agreement with him after all.

The profusion of comments regarding sexual exploration, Ouija boards, inappropriate movies, overly-intimate sharing, and also just downright mean nasty behavior (group sleepovers) jogged my memory. Let's see: check, check, check, check, and check. Other than not being molested by someone's older brother or father, every horror story recounted in those comments happened to me in the context of a pre-teen or teenage sleepover.

With many, many unwanted life-long lasting effects. Truly.

This is hard for me to admit because I want to believe that sleepovers are harmless. I want to be like the minority voices in that commbox who felt that these people who don't allow sleepovers are nutjobs trying to live in the bubble. I want to hold onto some fantasy of late-night giggling, bowls of popcorn, and a few Duran Duran videos. (Today I suppose that would be One Direction videos.)

The thing is, it was rarely if ever like that for me. Oh sure, there were a few times when it was all fun and innocent. But looking back, the best case scenario involved me being overly-tired the following day and my parents probably wanting to shoot themselves in the head over my next-day behavior, recognizing that I was functionally useless. In fact, I know of many families who limit the number of sleepovers their kids are allowed just for this one factor alone - the predictable rotten behavior that follows from not getting enough sleep and eating nothing but junk for hours.

I was trying to think if there was a modern cultural vignette of the sleepover to use as something to esteem to? But the only two that came to mind confirm what the commbox stories were saying: There's the sleepover scene in Grease where there's smoking, mean girl behavior, and immoral talk. Ditto for Valley Girl, where a short sleepover scene (if I remember correctly) involves the girls trying on the mother's sexy lingerie while she's out of the house. Note the "out of the house" part.

All of that seems charmingly innocent and true-blue American in some way. But we must remember that's Hollywood.

What's not innocent is how I was exposed to Blue Lagoon, Porkies, and God knows what other inappropriate movies starting at around age 12. The late night Ouija board sessions I held at multiple sleepovers are still near legendary status when certain friends reminisce. I easily recall the hurt feelings when late night sharing amongst girls would get out of control, as someone would finally just say what they really thought and felt about something, and then crying/fighting would ensue, sometimes ending with "I'm going home!" at 1:30 in the morning. I can't imagine what it's like now with smartphones in each hand. (I'm aware that numerous articles have now been written about the damage smartphones have wrought at sleepovers; some parents are banning phones when kids spend the night.)

But worse is the sexual abuse and pornography I was exposed to at sleepovers. I don't feel like saying too much more about it, but I will say this: My parents had no idea. They trusted the parent(s) of the homes I stayed in dozen upon dozens of times. They thought they knew the families. In my case, it wasn't that the family(ies) were rotten, it was actually that my friend(s) were rotten and corrupted. But it just as easily could have worked the other way around, with the friend being fine, but family members doing horrendous things under cover.

Many of the comments over at the Register talked about how sleepovers are permissible if you really, really, really know the family inside and out and know that they share your religious and social values. I agree with such a view, as I believe saying no sleepovers EVER is kind of extreme. In our case, Alan has had a handful of sleepovers with one particular child - staying at that child's house and that child staying at ours. Our two families are totally joined at the hip, including on the Catholic front, and besides, Alan is only six years old, so we don't really think there's an issue there.

Still, so many of the people discussing this subject at the Register made a point that I can't deny: What good is accomplished at night that can't be accomplished by daylight? A kid can stay at someone's house until 11:00 pm, come home and ACTUALLY SLEEP, and if you want to get up early and have breakfast together, great, let's get together at Denny's the next morning. There's no reason to be awake late into the night. There's no reason not to sleep. There's no reason not to sleep in your own bed, where peaceful sleep is actually possible.

And then there's just the question of the unknown - the things that go on within someone's home that you didn't anticipate or expect. If you read through the comments over there, it becomes evident that some of the families didn't expect what came from their own family!

Granted, I am naturally suspicious that the overload of comments which are decidedly anti-sleepover are skewed. I mean, let's face it, if there was an anti-pants entry over there, the anti-pants crowd comes running and fills the commbox and one walks away thinking they're going to hell for wearing jeans. It may be the same phenomenon about the sleepover topic. However, I didn't see unreasonableness in the stories and examples shared. It came off to me that is was mostly normal people who understood, as a few people quipped, that "My grandmother always said nothing good happens after midnight."

I'm relieved that I have a son, which means (I hope) that as he gets older, sleepovers will be way less of an issue than with girls. Unfortunately, my son already thinks that a sleepover is the best thing since sliced bread, but I rack that up to childish enthusiasm and the prospect of uninterrupted play, which is very important to an only child. But man oh man, if I had a daughter, I just don't know what I'd do. I say this as a girl who knows what girls do and how girls act. As far as I'm concerned, it's a landmine out there without sleepovers to complicate things.

What are your thoughts?


  1. My husband and I were talking about this article too. His point was that all the things mentioned can happen easily during the day. He's right, to a point. I don't think kids are as adventuresome when they know the parent is right in the next room and awake. This thought played into our deciding to buy our house. The family room/playroom is right off the kitchen, not in the basement or some other remote area. It's easily monitored without being intrusive.
    Sleepovers were a mixed bag for me growing up. A few were the harmless fun that one hopes for. Others involved skinny dipping and most of what you mention above. The emotionally healthiest things were simply sleeping over a friend's house, just one person.
    I'm thinking that, if one of our kids want to have a big sleepover, we'll go with a compromise. Party until like 11pm, then "breakfast" until midnight or so and then driving them all home. Our kids are only 7,6 & 4 so it's not an issue, yet.
    It's a tough balancing act to not parent from fear.

  2. Maureen,
    I agree it's a tough balancing act to not parent from fear. My biggest gripe with many homeschoolers I know and associate with is that they do exactly that. And yet sometimes I understand what they do.

    As far as kids not wanting to do anything bad because Mom and/or Dad are in the next room, I disagree. The sexual abuse that happened to me happened when the Mom/Dad were in the next room. And even in the same camper! And more than once.

  3. My parents never had pornography in the house and very protective of what we were allowed to watch at home. They weren't weird about it. My mom just thought kids should be reading instead of watching TV. But I was exposed to a lot of those things at my friends' houses during sleepovers and my parents had absolutely no idea.

    I vividly remember looking at a friend's father's pornography magazine that showed women having sex with horses. I think I was about 12. That image has been in head for 30 years.

    And there was always so much drama. All of my slumbers went the same way. It would end with a group of girls storming out and staying in my sister's empty room and then my mom would come up the stairs yelling that we needed to stop yelling and go to sleep. It took a few weeks for everyone to make up.

    I try very not to fall into the trap of letting fear dictate my parenting decisions. But on the other hand, I feel I must acknowledge that (1) the world is a very different place than it was when I was a kid and (2) just because I did something as a kid doesn't mean it was harmless.

  4. The point I made in a comment at the Register is very similar to a question you asked: What BAD is accomplished at night that can't be accomplished by daylight? I remember looking at a friend's father's dirty magazines in their basement on a summer afternoon in first grade, and about a decade later, having sex with my boyfriend at his house while his mother was home (very quietly, of course). The sleepover setting is not in itself problematic -- it depends on the individual circumstances.
    And if you want your kids to come home and sleep in their own beds at night, then that's that -- you're the parent, you get to decide, and you don't owe anyone any explanation. (I signed in with my full name at the Register but using Google here, so just an initial!)

  5. Char, I agree that it won't stop them by having parents in the vicinity (my cousin molested me at an anniversary party with dozens in nearby rooms). My thought is that it will hopefully lessen the chances of the kids doing too much foolish stuff. The other idea is that we want our house to be the place where kids congregate so we know who they're around. Also, the close proximity of the kitchen to their gathering place increases my chances of hearing what is going on and being available to them-Maureen

  6. "It's a tough balancing act to not parent from fear"-- well what if it's well-founded fear as nearly everyone's experiences suggest? Maybe the "sleepover" experiment has been tried, failed miserably and can now be discarded in the rubbish heap; the end. Incidentally, my brother-in-law from Eastern Europe thinks this sleepover idea is such a bizarre idea-- I'm not sure where it came from!!?
    -Faith in Oregon

  7. Lots of your comments are valid, though I definitely think close families with shares values is a much safer scenario. And I think there are times when it's needed, like when the parents are getting away for a couple of days and need another family to watch the child.

    I worked in the youth group at my church and had a girl in my group who had not overnighted and that was a hindrance for her. She was scared of being away from home and security and so couldn't go to camp, church retreats, etc. I think it has even limited her college choices so that she can stay at home. Not everyone will be as timid as she is, but it's an example of the potential drawbacks.

  8. Sleep overs are a nice way for our children to be able to spend time with their friends because virtually all of them are only reached by driving.

    Raise your children well and trust they will make the right decisions.

  9. I have three daughters and one son and we have hosted sleepovers and allowed our children to attend sleepovers. I've also sent my children away on vacation with other families as well as my own extended family. It's just a part of our life. I trust in God that they will be ok, and so far, so good. I traveled a lot as a child and went on a lot of sleepovers and spent a lot time away from my family (Europe and Alaska for a summer as a teenager) and it was a such a broadening experience. I never wanted to raise my children as being afraid to engage in the world. My children (as well as my husband and I) are very social and have a lot of friends and social engagements. It's just the way we roll.