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‘Sleepovers’: Are they always as ‘innocent’ as they sound?

Just over four years ago I was contacted by a mother who couldn’t wait to tell me her story about a ‘sleepover’ she had recently held for her daughter’s 14th birthday. I wrote an article about her experience and shared it. Last week she contacted me again, this time to tell me about her now 18-year-old daughter and what went down at the event celebrating that birthday… We’re in the process of putting together a piece about that but after reading what I wrote when I first heard from her, I thought it may be a good idea to update it and share it again …

Jane is the mother of three girls, the eldest of which just turned 14. To celebrate her daughter’s recent birthday, she agreed to hold a small gathering with a few of her friends being invited. After some discussion about what she wanted (and what Jane was willing to do!)  four friends were invited for a ‘sleepover’ on a Saturday night. The girls would stay the night and Jane would provide food, some games and a video or the like through the night. The family had only just moved to a new city and new school and Jane did not really know any of her daughter’s friends and saw the event as not only a good way to get to know them but also their parents.

Invitations were written and hand-delivered to the four girls at school (something Jane didn’t feel entirely comfortable about but was told that this was the way it was done) and later told by her daughter that all of them would be attending. Over the next week Jane waited to hear something from any of the parents – her number had been included on the invitation and she had anticipated that there would be some type of questions asked about the night and what was planned – but there was nothing! After discussions with her husband, she agreed that they must just be waiting for the actual evening to check things out and it would all be sorted when the girls were dropped off on the night. That was not the case, however, as each of the girls were dropped off in the driveway (although Jane could not guarantee that as she did not see all of the cars actually arriving) and not one of the parents accompanied their daughter to the door! She did not meet one of the parents, had not been asked anything about the event and what was going to be happening and really didn’t even know if they had any idea who their daughters were with and where they actually were …

Jane was flabbergasted! These were 14-year-old girls – the potential for tragic consequences were very real and yet their parents couldn’t even be bothered to make one simple call or take a quick walk down a driveway to find out who they were leaving their daughters with for the evening. Totally gobsmacking! Not one of these parents had ever met Jane or her husband before (the family had only recently moved from interstate), they knew nothing about their values and how they would be supervising the sleepover, or even who would be doing the supervising. They didn’t even know if there were adults in the house when they dropped their daughters off! As she said, these were four teenage girls (getting changed into sleepwear at some point!) who would staying the night at her house and their parents knew absolutely nothing about what was going to go down …

Sleepovers are not a new phenomenon – they have been around for a long time and play a key role in how young people learn to socialize during the pre-teen and early teen years. I believe that if your child wants to attend a sleepover and you believe it is going to be a safe event, you should absolutely let them go … It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that these are not always the innocent events that they purport to be … Of course, there are those, like the event that Jane put on for her daughter, that are exactly what you would expect them to be, i.e., nights involving young teens staying over at a friend’s house doing fun things. That said, ‘sleepovers’ can also be ‘teenage code’ for “I’m going out to a party drinking and I’m not telling my parents!” Telling your parents that you’re going to a friend’s house for a sleepover and won’t be home until mid-morning the next day is a great way of getting around parental rules governing parties and gatherings, as well as ensuring that they won’t be able to detect if they’ve been drinking alcohol. It’s the perfect cover and parents are falling for it ‘hook, line and sinker’!

So how do you know if the sleepover is real or not? This is where I continue to get totally floored by some parents’ behaviour because it’s not exactly rocket science – call the house where the supposed event is taking place and ask the parents about what is planned! If your child won’t give you a contact number, tries to tell you that you won’t be able to reach them, or that the host parents don’t have a phone (can you believe that some parents actually fall for that?) or that you would “shame them forever” if you do call – it’s a pretty sure bet that something is up! Your child keeps you ‘siloed’ for a reason – sure, there’s an element of embarrassment (i.e., they truly believe that nobody else’s parent is going to ask those questions) but it’s just as likely to be due to them not wanting you to know exactly what is going to happen. If you know to much you may not let them go … What is amazing about Jane’s story is that she did make herself available for parents, expecting them to call and check about the evening and not one of them did!

I have been trying to fathom the reasons why these parents wouldn’t have made the call beforehand or walk their daughters to the door and meet the family that they were going to entrust their child to for the evening. I’ve come up with four possibilities – none of which adequately explain the parents’ actions that night:

  • they had ‘blind trust’ – trusting that the parents hosting the event would do the ‘right thing’, had the same values and attitudes as them and, as a result, their child would be supervised appropriately and would be safe for the night
  • they were bullied by their 14-year-old daughter and told that they couldn’t make contact with another parent for fear of ‘shaming’ them in some way
  • they had plans for the evening and if they did too much digging, they may have to actually say ‘no’ to their daughter and look after her themselves, i.e., the ‘sleepover’ offered a free child-minding service and they didn’t want that spoiled
  • they just don’t care!

Some may say I’m being too harsh here (and certainly the final two reasons I’ve put forward are pretty brutal) but really if anyone can come up with a better reason, please let me know.

As I said, there are ‘legitimate’ sleepovers held every weekend across the country and there are many parents who are trying to do the right thing and monitor their teens the best they can (and I get that it’s not always easy!) but Jane’s story highlights a significant issue that is of great concern. How many parents really know where their teens are on a Saturday night and how hard are some of them trying to find out? A sleepover sounds innocent enough (and in many cases, that’s exactly what they are) but it is still vital that parents talk to each other and find out as much as possible about what is going to go down. Walking your 14-year-old son or daughter to the door of someone you are entrusting them to for the evening is not really that difficult and is crucial if you want to ensure your teen’s safety …

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