Some in the child sexual abuse prevention field would say that eliminating sleepovers altogether is a fail-safe way of preventing abuse that might otherwise take place during a sleepover. And definitely that’s a parent or caregiver’s prerogative; we always support prioritizing child safety. But sleepovers are one of the exciting joys of childhood, and they are wonderful for building relationship skills as well.
Personally, I’d prefer not to go down the path of blanket prohibitions as an overarching approach to protection from sexual abuse because I think too much childhood joy and growth would be missed. Prohibitions may be the easiest and “safest” approach, but they certainly aren’t the most dynamic.
If you are considering allowing your child to go for a sleepover at another child’s home, first you want to start with a gut check. Literally, what does my gut feel when I think about my child at this home? If you get no gut reaction at all, it may be because you don’t have enough information one way or the other about how safe your child will be in this family’s care. “No feeling” is not an adequate gut check.
But beyond the gut check, ask yourself the following questions, and work with them thoroughly.
1. What would make my child, tween, or teen “ready?”
This question has a lot of facets. First are the child’s maturity, disposition, and experience with being separate from his or her parents. These are what I would call emotional and psychological readiness. But also consider the various practical necessities that might make your child more “ready.” Comfort items. Special food needs. A cell phone. An escape hatch. A flash light! Ask your child what these might be.
2. How well do I know this family?
Reflect on what kind and how much interaction you and your child have had with this family prior to the sleepover invitation. Ideally, there have been several or many other kinds of interactions prior to the sleepover. Are the kids in school together? Have the adults sat through a few sports games together in the bleachers? Driven each other’s kids around? How much exposure have the families had to each other?
3. What kind of adult supervision will there be and who else will be present?
What influences do these other children or adults bring to the interaction? Will there be teenagers present, or others from outside the immediate family? Is this a group sleepover, or is your child the only guest?
4. What is their household like?
Personally, I’d like to have a sense of two things here: the overall feel of the household and to a certain degree how it’s laid out. The feel will tell you something about how comfortable your child may be in that setting. The layout will tell you something about safety and supervision. And from there you might like to know where your child will be sleeping. “In the house” may not be enough information, especially for younger children. Will she sleep on the floor in her own sleeping bag, or is she expected to sleep in a bed with another youngster? Will the kids be in a tent out back? Is there a policy in the home about open doors during sleepovers?
5. Can I talk with this parent(s) about my concerns and needs?
This is a biggie. If you can’t, consider it a negative on the gut check meter. If you feel you cannot bring up your concerns, you either don’t know the parent well enough, or there’s a red flag in your compatibility with the parent. If you can’t comfortably voice your concerns, how can you expect your child to feel safe in this home?
6. What are my hard and fast rules?
Obviously, no isolated one-on-one situations should be allowed under any circumstances, neither with adults nor with other children. Note the word isolated. Two children playing in the living room together while the adults are in the adjoining kitchen is not particularly isolated. A teen with your child in the basement is. Beyond that rule, what about movies? Drinking? Must your child check in for permission if the family were to change plans or decide to go out for the evening? Consider which of your household rules must be stretched to include the other household.
7. What safety and comfort contingencies can I put in place?
Lately parents are becoming bolder (Huzzah!) and even going so far as to ask if there are guns in the home. You may already know if there is a pool, but with young children especially, this would be good to know – and how it’s protected. And when it comes to preparing the child for safety and comfort, I’ve heard of parents playing the What If? game. What if you woke up in the night and got scared? What if Mrs. Smith offered strawberries (and the child is allergic)? What if Danny (older brother) asked you to hang out in his room? Thinking creatively together about these kinds of scenarios can be part of preparing your child and helping him to feel comfortable while facing the unforeseen.
8. What check-in points can we put into the mix?
Some parents ask for a call before bedtime, or a text or two from the child throughout the evening. Perhaps a quick call midway with the other parents. Maybe a call or text when the kids are in for the night.
And again having considered all of these questions deeply, now what’s my gut check?
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