Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why My Family Doesn't Do Sleepovers

by Tim Challies

James Dobson believes that children should not participate in sleepovers. The world has changed, he says, and has become too dangerous to allow your children out of your sight for so long. In his book Bringing Up Girls, he says:
Sadly, the world has changed in the last few decades, and it is no longer a safe place for children. Pedophiles and child molesters are more pervasive than ever. That is why parents must be diligent to protect their kids every hour of the day and night. …

Until you have dealt with little victims as I have and seen the pain in their eyes, you might not fully appreciate the devastation inflicted by molestation. It casts a long shadow on everything that follows, including future marital relationships. Therefore, parents have to think the unthinkable in every situation. The threat can come from anywhere—including neighbors, uncles, stepfathers, grandfathers, Sunday school teachers, coaches, music instructors, Scout leaders, and babysitters. Even public bathrooms can be dangerous today…
He believes the threat is so pervasive that parents should not allow their children to participate in sleepovers. I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing.

I agree with the nature of his concerns. Before my children were even old enough to ask, Aileen and I talked it through and decided we would not allow our kids to do sleepovers. Now let’s be clear: there is no biblical command that forbids them, so this was not a matter of clear right and wrong, but a matter of attempting to act with wisdom. We determined we would make it a family rule: Our children would not be allowed to spend the night at their friends’ homes. We believed they would face a particular kind of vulnerability if they found themselves alone and in bed outside our care, and we wanted to protect them from it. So they have stayed at their grandparents’ and have stayed with my sisters when we’ve visited the South, but they have not stayed at friend’s homes. (Note: My son is fourteen and we have now relaxed the rule with him, though permission is still dependent on circumstances.)

The reason we drew the rule so firmly was that it removes exceptions and explanations. We know ourselves well and realized that if we drew up a list of exceptions we would inevitably broaden that list over time. Not only that, but we did not want to have to explain to a family why we allowed our children to stay with others but not with them. So sleepovers were just taken right off the table without exceptions or individual explanations.

In this way I agree with Dobson that there is wisdom in avoiding sleepovers. But here’s where I disagree: that the risk is that much higher today than it was decades ago.

Aileen and I made our decision based largely on experience and observation of what happened around us when we were young. We made this decision because even in our youth—decades ago—we saw plenty of evidence of the dangers inherent in sleepovers.

When I was young I had some bad experiences with sleepovers. Nothing devastating happened to me, but I did learn that sleepovers bring a certain vulnerability and that children often behave foolishly in these circumstances. Before long my family came to know the local chief of police and he told us that if he had learned anything in his many years of law enforcement it was this: Don’t let your kids sleep over. As I got older I learned of several people I knew who had been taken advantage of during sleepovers, and it wasn’t a perverse father in most cases, but a predatory older brother or sister or cousin. Sometimes it was even the friend himself. The world was plenty dangerous back then and children were just as vulnerable, but somehow these things weren’t talked about as they are today.
As Aileen and I considered all of this and weighed it in our minds, we decided that the benefits of sleepovers did not outweigh the risks.

Denny Burk writes, “Parents must be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves when figuring out the best way to protect children from both. Moreover, parents will often have to pursue principles that might seem strange to the rest of the world but which are the only rational responses to very real and potential threats to children.” Burk believes we need to challenge the assumption of sleepover-as-norm, and I quite agree. Do not allow yourself to feel pressured into sleepovers simply because it is what parents have always done. Instead, consider the issues and come to a conclusion that is right for your family and your context.

I would be interested to know: Do you allow sleepovers? Why or why not?

6 REFLECTIONS ON SLEEPOVERS
I didn’t see this one coming. After over ten years of daily blogging, I tend to have a pretty good sense of which articles have the potential to cause a reaction and which articles have the potential to fizzle. I might have guessed that an article on why my family doesn’t do sleepovers would have attracted a few more readers than usual, but I wouldn’t have believed that in its first week it would be read by nearly 750,000 people. But it was, and I found myself wondering why.

I’ve spent some time reading through comments and responses to try to understand why so many people were interested in reading about sleepovers. Here are a few personal takeaways from the discussion.

1. Validation
I was surprised to realize how many parents are concerned about sleepovers and how many do not allow them. I think one of the reasons the article spread is that it validated a lot of people who had assumed they were on their own. That “Me too!” factor was important as parents realized they are not the only ones who have made the decision not to allow their kids to participate in sleepovers. On a very practical note, the sleepover discussion is binary—either you do or do not allow them, and that allows everyone to take a side. Taking sides generates controversy and controversy generates shares and clicks. Takeaway: There are a surprising number of people who do not appreciate or allow sleepovers.

2. Controversy
I would like to think that when someone writes, “Why my family doesn’t do sleepovers” or “Why my family loves sleepovers,” we do not take it as a personal affront. Articles like these can represent a helpful opportunity to sharpen our thinking, even if we do not change our position. We are never better or stronger than our convictions and face the life-long challenge of continually deepening those convictions. While I did receive a lot of very helpful feedback from people who agreed and who disagreed with me, there was also an awful lot of anger and bickering. Christians too often do poorly with controversy, even on relatively minor discussions like this one. We are quick to feel judged and slow to extend grace and understanding. If we aren’t careful, “Why my family doesn’t do sleepvers” quickly morphs into, “Why you’re a terrible parent and will ruin your children if you allow sleepovers.” Takeaway: We need to grow in our ability to deal well with controversy.

3. Experience
Perhaps the strongest theme I saw in all the comments and responses was this: Our decisions are inseparable from our experiences. I made it clear in my article that my childhood experience with sleepovers was part of the reason I dislike them. Meanwhile, I heard from many other people who essentially said, “I will never allow sleepovers because I was sexually abused during one” or “Sleepovers are great and I never faced any uncomfortable situations during one.” We are all products of our experiences and we necessarily parent out of those experiences. Parents who had difficult or tragic experiences with sleepovers tend to approach them differently from those whose experiences were only ever good. Takeaway: We do well to learn from one another, rather than assuming our own experience is universal.

4. Fear
Every parent makes certain decisions based on fear—the fear of what may happen if they make a poor decision. Sometimes we deny our children privileges out of a desire to protect them. We rate the uncertainty of a situation higher than the benefit of the situation. One of our foremost fears is making a poor decision that exposes our children to sexual abuse. For many people sleepovers introduce too much of the unknown and in that way plays right into the fear that we will put our children at risk. Takeaway: Sleepovers have a way of exposing our fears, and we respond in many different ways.

5. Expectation
What I heard from many parents is that they do not appreciate the expectation that they ought to allow their children to sleep over. Aileen and I have experience with this, and have had parents outright mock us and call us overprotective for not allowing sleepovers (even though we barely know the parents or family!). I don’t think anyone can deny that both options—allowing and disallowing sleepovers—represent legitimate choices for parents. But those who do not allow sleepovers feel like they are facing unfair pressure to conform (while, undoubtedly, those who do allow sleepovers feel like others consider them reckless). As Christians we need to be careful to lovingly affirm those who make a choice different from our own and to refuse to pass judgment on them. Takeaway: Let’s not make sleepovers an expected part of a normal childhood.

6. Change
Different families have always had different rules about movies and bedtimes and other issues that arise during sleepovers. But a new and important issue where parents lead their families in different ways is access to the Internet. Many parents expressed concern about their children being in a home where the rules were far more relaxed than they would want. I read comment after comment from people concerned about the prevalence of pornography today. And, indeed, many people told of how their children were first exposed to porn while sleeping over at a friend’s home. Takeaway: For many parents the possibility of exposure to pornography represents the “bridge too far” that keeps them from allowing their kids to sleep over.