Now before anyone jumps down my throat and says that's not always the case and that there are sleepovers held all over the country every weekend that are completely innocent involving just a group of young people getting together and spending time with their friends, I completely agree. But from my perspective, however, these night-time get togethers are changing in many ways and because parents regard them as innocent and safe, they rarely question or challenge the information their child gives them and it isn't too long before a clever teen works out that this is a really easy way to get around rules and boundaries and experiment with alcohol, as well as other drugs ...
When I think of sleepovers I remember the ones I attended when I was in my early teens. They were incredibly innocent - I don't remember anymore than 3 or 4 of us over at somebody's house, we would watch TV, play some games, maybe go and see a late afternoon session at the movies if we were dropped off early enough (but that was a really big deal and would involve quite a lot of organisation and negotiation!) and that was about it. Lately I have been stunned as to what happens at some of these sleepovers and how some parents just accept that these things are ok ...
- some sleepovers have both boys and girls attending - as an ex-teacher who had to supervise school camps I can tell you that this is a logistical nightmare when you have a team of trained people to supervise ... how could a parent do this adequately? One sleepover that I was told about a couple of weeks ago had twenty14 year-olds attend - 10 boys and 10 girls! That has disaster written all over it and what was the parent thinking?
- the number of young people invited just seems to have got out of hand in some cases - I have heard of sleepovers where there were as many as 30 girls invited (isn't that a party, or is that a gathering?). How could anyone in their right mind want to look after that many girls and realistically is there anyway in the world they could really be able to supervise that many to ensure their safety?
- there is no 'pick-up' time - in many cases, teens don't even get picked up by parents from sleepovers, instead they wander out of the house at some point and then just turn up at home sometime in the afternoon. I'm not talking just about 15 and 16 year-olds here - I was recently told by a mum that her 13 year-old daughter caught a train home from a sleepover (a 50 min ride) at Sunday lunchtime with 5 other girls. She had felt quite uncomfortable allowing it but had been told by her daughter that that was what everybody did!
- some sleepovers are actually supervised by a babysitter specifically hired for the night - the parents are planning to go out for the evening and someone else is employed to ensure all goes as smoothly! When a parent told me about this I couldn't believe it and asked why in heavens she had actually agreed to let her daughter attend. When she told me that she hadn't been informed and even though she had called the mother and asked a whole pile of questions about the night, she neglected to inform her that she wouldn't be there - unbelievable!
Here are five simple things every parent should do if your child asks to go to a sleepover. You can bet that they won't want you to do any of them (always remember that if your child ever says "But you can't do that ...", it almost always means you should absolutely do it ....) but if you want to ensure your child's safety you really need to ...
Don't make a decision about letting them go or not immediately: Teens are great at finding just the right time to ask you questions they want a specific answer to ... they know that if they ask you just as you're walking out the door, a little bit flustered trying to get something done or concentrating on something else, if they throw a question in at that time and they add the statement "I really need to let them know now", you're much more likely to say 'yes' without thinking about it too much. Don't be bullied into making a decision without asking the questions you need to ask. It is also vital that both you and your partner are on the same page here - if your child can see even the slightest crack in one of you they will use that to their advantage.
Contact the parent and find out as much as you can about the event: This is an absolute must and I get that it can be a difficult phone call but when it comes to your child's safety it has to be worth it! Call the parent, introduce yourself and then have questions prepared that you are going to ask. Make sure they are asked in a way that is not confrontational and accusatory. Some of the questions that you will most probably want answered will include the following:
- What time does it start and what time is it finishing?
- Will there be adult supervision? Who are those adults?
- How many young people will be attending? Is it a 'single-sex' event?
It could also be a good idea to give your contact details over to them at this point. This can be done when you drop your child off on the night but things can get a bit hectic at that time so it is often better to hand it over when you call so they have it if anything changes.
Take your child, walk them to the door and meet the parent: No matter what your child says, if you have never met these parents (and even if you have, take the opportunity to say 'hi' again!), walk your child to the door and introduce yourself. If they ask you in and you have the time and the inclination, go for it! The main reason I say this is that I know of many examples where parents have lied to other parents when the call has been made - taking your child to the door and ensuring that what you have been told is true is vital.
Make contact with your child at least once through the night: This is a difficult one as you certainly don't want your child to think you don't trust them (even though you may not!) and you don't want to embarrass them but if you start this practice nice and early and sell it as a 'safety' strategy it shouldn't be as big a problem. Make it clear to them that you want to hear from them at least once through the evening to make sure they're safe - note, I said 'talk' not text! The main issue here is that parents are now relying on texts as a way of ensuring their child's safety (most particularly their whereabouts) when in fact, receiving a text from a 14 year old saying "Having a great time at John's. Speak in the morning" - could have been sent from anywhere and mean 'won't be able to speak until lunchtime - drunk too much!' My recommendation is that once in a while (and particularly if you have any doubts at all about the sleepover, the parents or your teen's friends) call the house using the landline (or the parent's mobile) and ask to speak to your child. Make sure you have a good excuse as you certainly don't want to embarrass your child in front of their friends (I always suggest say you've lost the remote for the TV or the like and they may know where it is), but you need to speak to them.
Pick them up the next morning by no later than 10am: From what I can gather from young people I speak to this is where one of the greatest problems lies and explains how some of them get away with drinking as much as they do and their parents remain completely unaware. When I speak to Year 10s who are the high-risk drinkers and ask them how they are able to drink as much as they do (sometimes up to half a bottle of vodka to themselves!) and not get caught by their parents, the answer is always the same - "I didn't see them until late Sunday afternoon"! Just because it is daytime, it doesn't mean that 'all is safe' - if you took your child to a sleepover, pick them up the next morning (no later than 10am) and ensure that they are safe and check that they didn't do something the night before that could have put them at risk (most importantly again, were they actually there for the evening?). This idea of letting them wander home by themselves, whenever they want is truly terrifying ...
Now the most important thing to remember here is that your child is growing up and you have to 'free the reins' a little as they get older, as well as reward good behaviour, but that doesn't mean you throw your hands up in the air and say 'go for it'! Should you be walking your 17 year-old son up to every 18th birthday party they are invited to and meet the parents? Of course not, but on the other hand do you really think it is safe to drop your 14 year-old child off to a sleepover at the end of a driveway and not even see who opens the door of where they are supposedly going? Should you be allowing your 15 year-old to just wander through the door sometime on Sunday afternoon and really have no idea where he actually was and what he did the night before? There has to be a solution somewhere in the middle, particularly for those really difficult years of 15-16 when they are going to be invited to parties and gatherings and there are going to be issues around safety.
In his book, Age of Opportunity (my new bible as far as adolescent behaviour and parenting is concerned), Laurence Steinberg says "the single most important thing parents can do to raise healthy, happy and successful kids is to practice authoritative parenting", i.e., provide rules and boundaries bound in unconditional love. He also adds that parents need to be 'supportive' and that they should "gradually relinquish control and try to permit - rather than protect - when you can". Of course, there will be times when you will decide to say 'no' to them, if that is the case, then you will need to explain why. Whether it be sleepovers in their early teens, or parties and gatherings later - there will be times when you will need to "gradually relinquish control", but there will be others when you will have to say 'no'!
As a parent you can only do what you think is right for your child. How other parents raise their children is their business and it really is not your place to become involved in their parenting decisions. It is important to remember that every family is different and that not every parent is going to have the same views as you but calling other mums and dads (many who feel just as confused and concerned about this topic as you do) and finding out what is actually going on is vital.