Alaska Life

Sleepovers have gotten very complicated

Teenager on his phone in the dark, sleeping, bed, smartphone, youth, stock, generic

The boys had been hanging out all Saturday afternoon, and Cicely Thrasher was planning to pick up her 12-year-old son from his friend’s house at 7 p.m. But as evening approached, the kids decided they wanted a sleepover. The friend’s father texted Thrasher to say it was fine with him if her son wanted to spend the night.

When the message appeared on her phone, she felt a surge of dread.

“I hate being a party pooper. I want my son to have deep and meaningful friendships,” she says. But: “I also knew that I would be setting a precedent if I allowed it to happen. I wasn’t ready for that decision on such short notice.”

She immediately started Googling: Are sleepovers good or bad for kids? and child development + sleepovers and risks and benefits of sleepovers. She listened to child psychologists on TikTok, scrolled through blog posts and searched newspaper articles. She politely declined the sleepover invitation, and kept scouring the internet. “Mostly,” she says, “I was just trying to find a way to feel good about my decision.”

A sense of certainty proved elusive, but she did find that she has plenty of company in feeling unsure about sleepovers. Among parents who are skeptical of this particular rite of childhood, one question - “Can I spend the night?” - unleashes a slew of others: How well do we know the other parents? Are there guns in the house? What about alcohol or drugs? What is the risk of covid exposure? Are there older siblings around? Will the kids be watching YouTube or TikTok all night? Is it a girls-only or boys-only gathering? (And what about kids who don’t adhere to binary concepts of gender and sexuality?) What might happen if they stay the night, and what might they miss if they don’t?

There are families for whom slumber parties are out of the question; in certain cultures, allowing your child to stay overnight with someone outside the family is not an accepted practice (many Gen-Z TikTok users have meme’d the awkward experience of turning down sleepover invitations because of wary parents).

Millions of parents post under the viral hashtag #NoSleepovers. They flock to parenting influencers and psychiatrists on TikTok who expound on various sleepover risks.

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And there are parents who are still on the fence, sharing their uncertainty in online groups, wanting to know how different families approach the issue. Some compromise by picking up their children from a slumber party at 10 p.m. or midnight (often called a “half-over,” “sleep-under” or “late-over”). Others allow sleepovers only with a small circle of close, trusted friends.

For Thrasher, 45, who lives with her husband and their three sons in Portland, Ore., the first thing that came to mind was that she didn’t know the hosting family well. She also feels protective of her multiracial boys, who are often the only kids of color in their group of friends - a dynamic that she knows can shape social experiences.

For Heather, a mom of two teens in Massachusetts who asked that her full name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, the pervasiveness of alcohol gives her pause. “I could see what other parents were posting on social media, and it made me wary,” she says. “Photos of hard liquor. Glamorizing a culture of drinking.”

Ariele Sullivan, a 37-year-old mother of two in New Jersey, says she doesn’t want her kids on screens all night. “I get very upset when I pick my kids up from a playdate and I hear, ‘oh we watched TV the whole time,’” she says. “I want my kids to be outdoors, I want them to be playing and learning how to socialize.”

Guns were a top concern for Casey Cavalier, 56, who has a 10-year-old son. Before his family moved to the Pacific Northwest last year, many of their neighbors in their Texas community kept firearms at home. Sleepover invitations also meant explaining that he and his husband were gay parents: “People didn’t always know - they just knew that our kids were friends in school,” he says. “So it meant coming out again.”

As parents look to establish common ground with prospective sleepover hosts, the resulting questions - do you use parental controls for screen time? Do you own a gun? Are you vaccinated and boosted? - feel imbued with something more complex than a purely logistical checklist. They surface the underlying truth that not everyone shares the same priorities and values, and those priorities and values might not feel negotiable. At a time when so much of our societal discourse is focused on how divided we’ve become, sleepover invitations are perhaps just one more way to reveal the fault lines between us.

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Mary Alvord isn’t surprised that more parents are feeling uncertain about trusting other families to keep their kids overnight. Over her 40-plus years as a clinical psychologist and author who works with families and children, Alvord has seen parental anxiety creep steadily upward. The pandemic exacerbated that pattern, she says, turning social interactions between families into more complicated, calculated risks.

But she noticed a heightened sense of caution among parents even before covid, with parents more involved in monitoring their children’s social experiences. “It’s a delicate balance - you do not want to put your children in harm’s way,” she says. “On the other hand, you don’t want them to be afraid of risks that are important to move them further in life, like trying new things, tolerating some level of discomfort, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.”

Alvord thinks social media has something to do with this amplified sense of vigilance, the fact that today’s parents are inundated with an overwhelming volume of information and traumatic accounts of potential dangers. There is the ambient sense that we live in a perilous time to raise a child, giving parents plenty of reason to feel on edge.

“There’s just a lot more for parents to think about now,” Alvord says. “And it’s not that some of these things weren’t going on before, but we weren’t as aware of it, people weren’t talking about it.”

Alvord, who grew up the daughter of Armenian immigrants in New York City, fondly remembers attending sleepovers when she was a young girl. That kind of social experience can foster a sense of independence and offer kids a new way to understand their peers, exposing them to different environments, different foods, different rhythms and routines. “I learned a lot by going to other people’s homes,” she says.

But kids can build social fluency and resilience through many different kinds of encounters. “Sleepovers are just one way,” Alvord says, “and I think we all do need to be sensitive to kids who may feel left out because their families don’t believe in it - that’s fine, that’s their family value.”

A parent’s own past experiences can also shape how they approach the issue. For Anisha Jones, a mother in Little Rock with six kids in her blended family, there are certain rules about sleepovers that she isn’t willing to bend. Her 7-year-old daughter attended her first-ever sleepover just a few weeks ago, and this was only because the invitation came from one of Jones’s closest friends, who has a 5-year-old daughter, and there would be no men or boys at the house. These kinds of rules, Jones says, are nearly unanimous among her friends.

“We’re all on the same page, and I think that’s the reason why Black families tend to have auntie-cousin relationships with their friends. They get close. They know them. They’ve grown up together, they’ve been friends for decades,” Jones says. “With my friends, it’s like - I know I can trust you. But if I had a friend who I can trust with my kids, and she was dating a guy, and he would be staying the night, my daughter would not be there. And my friend would understand that.”

Jones’s trust is hard-won, she says. She’s a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the daughter of a mother who struggled with addiction. She is also a federal public defender who has seen horrific stories involving children unfold in courtrooms. “When you see that all the time in your career, and you have the background that I have, it makes you feel a lot more firm about your rules about what can and cannot happen with your children,” she says.

Renata, a 43-year-old mother of two in Maryland who asked her full name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, shares similar feelings. Among her circle of fellow Black moms, sleepovers with their daughters are often hosted at hotels specifically so that husbands, brothers and older siblings are very clearly not in attendance.

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Renata grew up going to many sleepovers herself, and she enjoyed them, but she has friends who have told her “horror stories” that left her rattled. “I feel like I dodged all the bullets,” she says. “There was no sexual assault, nobody was inappropriate, everybody was nice, girls were nice, nobody asked me to do anything that I didn’t want to do. I’m not sure how I escaped anything bad happening, but I know a lot of people experienced it.”

Heather, the mom who worries about drinking culture, says her husband has his own hesitations. He’s home contractor, and his work takes him into basements and crawl spaces and areas typically hidden from guests. “He sees the conditions and environments people really live in. Or the hobbies they’re secretly into,” she says. “I know some of what he’s seen has made him leery of sleepovers.”

Casey Cavalier is a member of online parenting forums for fathers, and he’s frequently seen posts from other dads wondering how to handle a sleepover where kids of more than one gender might be present. Cavalier isn’t worried about that issue, he says; he’s more concerned about the possibility of experiences that echo what he endured as a kid.

“I worry about them fighting with each other, or bullying each other,” Cavalier says. He worries about kids talking about sex or other issues where misinformation might be spread, “and I’d rather he talk to me first. But that’s all a natural part of growing up, so -” he trails off. “I’m not a helicopter parent, but he’s our only son.”

A feeling of deep trust is a necessity for Adiba Nelson to allow her disabled daughter to attend a sleepover with friends: Her 13-year-old daughter, Emory, uses a wheelchair and relies on a computer to help her communicate. Emory is also very social, and when she was in first grade, one of her close friends - the daughter of their school’s speech therapist, a woman Nelson knew well and trusted implicitly - invited Emory to a sleepover.

“It’s a lot to expect another parent, who is simultaneously parenting 10 other small children, to help your child exclusively,” Nelson says in an email. “But she insisted I leave Emory there . . . and if she needed me, she’d call me. She never called, and Emory had a fantastic time. And that was the only sleepover that she was ever invited to.”

Nelson would require that same level of confidence with any parent who would care for her daughter overnight - but if the possibility presented itself again, she would welcome it, she says.

“I’d be thrilled for Emory. . . She’d be over the moon. But she’s in junior high now, and friend circles change,” Nelson says. “So, yeah. Sleepovers are not a thing we see or do anymore.”

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When Cecily Thrasher picked up her son from his friend’s house after dinner, he told her he was disappointed that he couldn’t spend the night. But there was no drama about it, she says; after all, he’d still spent most of the day there.

She’s been thinking about how her kids are in contact with their friends all the time, in a way she never was. “They’re at school, they are texting, they have activities they all do together, they’re just far more scheduled and around their friends far more than I really ever was,” she says. When she came home from school as a kid, she was truly apart from her peers, and that might be part of what made sleepovers feel so special - all that unlimited access to one another. “But I tend to find that my boys need time away from their social circles, because they’re with other kids all the time.”

Thrasher came of age sleeping over with her friends nearly every weekend. Most of those experiences were good ones. But the landscape of American childhood, and American parenting, has changed since then, and her feelings about sleepovers are changing too.

“I feel like my kids can still experience these social interactions, these rites of passage,” she says, “just in ways that look different from what they were when I was growing up.”

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