Recent viral Tiktok videos have ignited a vigorous parenting debate: Do I allow my child to participate in sleepovers? Advocates of sleepovers argue they are essential to a child’s social and emotional development. Critics reason that they pose too many risks for their comfort. Many parents, though, are on the fence, unsure about the best decision for their family.
The list of possible risks posed by allowing children to sleepover at another family’s house varies depending on the parent and child.
Guns: Research shows that the most prevalent and dangerous risk is the potential of unsecured firearms in homes. A 2022 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that guns are now the leading cause of death in children and teens. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that only 46% of homes with firearms store them properly. Given that and estimated 4.6 million children live in homes with unlocked firearms, these numbers, and tragic stories like that of Christian Petillo, cause many parents to pause when considering whether to allow their child to attend a sleepover.
Alcohol and Drugs: An additional worry cited by parents considering sleepover bans is the possible presence of drugs and alcohol. When left unsupervised, children and teens may be tempted to experiment with otherwise off-limits substances. Otherwise safe homes can contain dangerous substances for kids and this can result in injury or even death for curious adolescents.
Sexual Assault and Pornography: In her essay, “My Family Doesn’t Do Sleepovers and This is Why,” Elizabeth Broadbent shares her childhood trauma of being sexually molested by a peer during a sleepover. She details the risks children and adolescents face from their peers, older children, and other adults. She also worries about sexual exposure due to easy access to pornography and doesn’t want to expose her children to what she feels are unnecessary risks.
While the risks listed above are real and justified, many other experts warn that too much risk-aversion can stifle a child’s emotional and social development. Professionals like Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author worry that “U.S. parenting culture has grown increasingly overprotective. If a parent is resistant or hesitant to sleepovers, especially at the home of someone the host knows and trusts, it’s important parents examine their motivations.”
Independence and Resilience: Mary Alvord, a psychologist and author of the “Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents,” views sleepovers as a “rite of passage.” She reasons that children need opportunities to demonstrate independence and learn cognitive mental flexibility. Children who are not given opportunities to practice these critical skills can develop anxiety, fears, and phobias.
Empathy, Diversity, and Socialization: In “The Case for Sleepovers,” Erika Christakis, shares how sleepovers helped her to learn many practical skills, while also building her emotional intelligence. She writes, “I learned skills such as how to sleep in the dark, and talk with intimidating people, and tolerate teasing from someone’s older sibling. I also learned compassion, humility, and gratitude from sleeping at other people’s houses. I saw the generosity and indulgence families extended to me. I saw their pride in how they did things. I saw the brave faces they put on. More than one of my childhood friends had lost a parent; some of them had other significant trauma. I saw family struggles that could be more easily hidden in daytime hours. Sleepovers, for all their flaws, humanized others, and as a result, they made me more human too.”
So What’s a Parent to Do?
Like most every parenting decision, the best choice is what’s right for your family and child. It’s important to assess the risks and consider the rewards. Whatever decision you make, experts offer some sound advice:
If you decide sleepovers are not right for your family, consider other options that you feel comfortable with. A camping trip with another family, a “sleepunder” where your child stays late, but not overnight. Purposefully find ways to allow children to build the emotional and social skills they need.
If you decide to allow sleepovers, work to minimize risks. Ask questions about guns, alcohol, older siblings, and any other circumstances that may concern you. Talk with your child about possible risks and discuss how they can make safe, healthy decisions. Most importantly, help your child to feel safe disclosing uncomfortable information or situations with you. Give them a safety net, like a code word to text or another way to discreetly remove themselves from possibly harmful situations.