I vividly remember the day I heard about the Challenger explosion. I remember exactly when and where the tragic news of Princess Diana's death stunned me. And I can recall, just as clearly, the moment my 8-year-old son excitedly announced he'd been invited to his first sleepover birthday party.
Deep inside, I cringed. Outwardly, I made a wimpy attempt at a smile and said with feigned enthusiasm, "Great!" Inside, however, I was thinking, But I don't know these people.
I wondered if there was a way to get to know this family by the weekend: "Hi, I'm Matt's mother. While we consider your invitation could you please fill out a family tree? Note your ancestors—at least four generations back—and if it's not too much trouble, could you sign these forms granting me permission to run a background check?"
The Sleepover. It's not an activity I'm quick to push my kids into. When they sleep (or should I say, don't sleep) away from home, a thousand nagging worries—some small, some not-so-small—plague me: What are they watching on TV? Is the supervision adequate? Do all sleepovers include Ouji boards and seances? Is someone introducing my child to pornography, homosexuality, or drugs?
Even when my child spends the night with a family I know and trust, I prefer to veto sleepovers, if only to avoid dealing with a tired and grouchy child the next day. I don't, however, because my kids love them and my husband, who's always had different ideas than me on how to cut the proverbial apron strings, thinks sleepovers are a great part of growing up.
I know he's right and that sleepovers can be a positive experience for my kids. Connie Schultz, Family Outreach Specialist for the State College schools in Pennsylvania, points out one plus, saying, "Sleepovers give children a chance to see how another family lives." Still, she adds, "I do advise parents to allow their children to sleep over only where they've visited comfortably before and where the rules are similar to home."
Chances are your child will be invited to a sleepover by the time she's 7 or 8. According to American Demographics magazine, sleepovers are becoming more common at a younger age. And although your child may be close friends with the child hosting the party, the busy lives we parents lead may mean that you don't know the parents as well as you'd like. The best way to handle your concerns is to develop some family guidelines before the invitations start pouring in. Just as the right age to try a night away from home varies from child to child, effective family sleepover policies also will vary. If you're stuck for where to start, consider how these families handle the issue:
Patsy Rougeux, mother of four, says, "We limit sleepovers to friends whose parents I really know. I live in my hometown so I know a lot of people. If one of my children makes a friend, I put effort into getting to know the parent. Even when I know the parents, I don't always trust that they have the same policies or morals I have. So I get on the phone and ask what's on the agenda for the evening."
At first Patsy felt uncomfortable about being assertive about activities in someone else's home. But she's found most parents respect her concerns. To start this type of conversation, experts suggest using "I messages." A statement that begins with the word I is less likely to prompt defensiveness. Try, "I wonder if you can fill me in on what the boys have planned tonight." Or, "I'd like to know who will be home." Agree on an ending time for the visit: "If it's convenient for you, I'll pick Mandy up at 10:00 tomorrow morning." If the other parent is evasive or scorns your concerns, your kids are probably better off at home.
Movies are a sleepover staple. Patsy taught her kids to say, "I'm not allowed to watch a movie that's rated PG-13 or higher. Could we watch something else?" But she's not sure they'll always have the courage to speak up in a roomful of peers. So when she's talking with the parents ahead of time, she often offers to provide some family-friendly movies.
Susan Minchin, also the mother of four, believes the cost is too high and has banned sleepovers altogether. "I was unpleasantly surprised by some of the situations my kids ran into at sleepovers. Now we just don't do sleepovers. This policy has simplified our lives. Our kids can go to parties but we pick them up at a reasonable hour. I know they're missing out on fun, so we make fun for them in other ways."
Sherry Durkin, mother of five, has found that by setting clear criteria ahead of time, she is able to feel comfortable about an overnighter. "Our kids can't sleep at a friend's unless that friend has been to play at our house and we've gotten to know him first. Also, we make a point to meet the friend's parents. We don't allow Saturday sleepovers because they interfere with church."
Besides movies, it's wise to discuss other things your children might encounter at a sleepover. That way you can coach an appropriate response. For instance, our son was visiting a family who had a hot tub so I reminded him of our family rule that children aren't allowed in a hot tub unless a parent is in the room. He was surprised and asked, "Wouldn't it be rude to say that?" So we practiced ways to say it politely.
Connie Schultz reminds her kids, "You're not expected to tough it out if you feel uncomfortable. If you change your mind about sleeping over, call home." It's also helpful to rehearse ways your child can politely ask to use the phone.
For me, loving my kids involves learning when to hold on and when to let go, when to protect and when to say, "Go learn." I've found the right time to let go is usually before I feel completely ready. My job is to protect my children but also to trust that Almighty God is protecting them always. Even at a sleepover.
Faith Tibbetts McDonald is a writer and former educator. She lives with her husband and three children in Pennsylvania.
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