- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

MIAMI — Forget the sleepover rituals of junk food, “truth or dare” and late-night gab sessions that have ushered tweens into teens for decades. A new generation of parents is sticking to strict no-sleepover rules.

They call them “sleep unders,” “half-overs,” “late nights” and “breakfast bashes.” Come in your jammies, bring junk food, play all the games you want, but at a certain point children will be tucked in under their own roof, where their parents know the rules about R-rated movies, Internet use and adult supervision.

“In the old days it used to be that you would build up to a sleepover, and you knew everything about that family,” said Stacy DeBroff, a Boston mother of two and author of four parenting books, including “The Mom Book!” ”But now a more vigilant kind of hyperconcerned parent says, ‘Unknown dangers may lurk; I don’t know every variable … and so I’m going to hover and basically swoop in and take you out.”

While plenty of families believe slumber parties are harmless good fun, several news articles about molestation at sleepovers — including a case in which a Vermont father was charged in June with drugging a 13-year-old friend of his daughter’s with a smoothie and then fondling her — have given parents who worry about slumber parties concrete reasons to avoid them.

Gabbie Newsome said anxiety about creepy male relatives is partly why she and her husband decided against sleepovers when their daughter was 3.

Now 11, Allison Newsome knows the drill. If it’s a group sleepover, she can stay until around 10:30, when her parents arrive to shuttle her to her own bed. Mrs. Newsome, a Miami mother of two, worries she’s being overprotective but says the “what if” factor outweighs it.

“You read so many horror stories. The kid’s father going into the room and doing something,” the 37-year-old Mrs. Newsome. “We just don’t feel comfortable with people we don’t know.”

Now, experts say, many children throwing sleepovers simply invite everyone in the class to prevent hurt feelings, meaning parents receive invitations from families they’ve had little or no contact with. For mothers and fathers who are concerned about safety, this is frightening.

But even families the parents know well may not share the same values.

Mrs. Newsome, who does allow her children to spend the night at a few relatives’ homes, recently picked up her children from a cousin’s and found them watching an R-rated movie that she and her husband had decided was inappropriate.

Lisa Sipes says she can’t think of any parents she trusts enough to let her 4-year-old daughter Lainey spend the night with.

“There needs to be a certain level of supervision that not all parents take the time to offer,” said Mrs. Sipes, a 32-year-old mother of two from South Florida. “Even friends that I’m close with. I don’t parent the same way they do.”

Recently a fellow mother of two preschool-aged children wondered out loud to Mrs. Sipes about what age a child would be considered old enough to be left alone in the back yard without supervision. “I was shocked,” Mrs. Sipes said.

Mothers and fathers who fondly recall their own late but otherwise harmless nights of spooky stories and giggling dismiss these concerns as overanxious parenting.

Kendra Ridley, a Virginia Beach mother of two, says sleepovers were one of her greatest childhood memories and she won’t deny her two daughters, 10 and 5, the same fun.

Of course, it has to be with parents she trusts, but those families do exist, she says.

“The world was just as scary when we were little. We just didn’t have 24-hour news cycles to hear about it,” Mrs. Ridley says.

Some parents who allow sleepovers at select homes say they talk with host parents about what food their child can eat, what they may watch on TV and even what time their child should be in bed.

It’s thorny territory, experts say. Can you impose your own values and enforce your own rules when your child is at another parent’s home?

Absolutely not, says Michele Borba, author of several parenting books, including “12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know.” It’s reasonable to ask about the level of adult supervision during a sleepover or inquire about the other children who will be attending, but “for you to be able to say, ‘This is what I ask you to serve my child for dinner,’ unless she has a a peanut allergy, is way over the top.”

Instead, Ms. Borba’s advice is to get to know the parents before a potential sleepover. Have coffee with the mom, or have the child over for a daytime play date.

“The baby-step model is what we’re not doing, instead of all of a sudden letting them loose with 12 other kids at somebody’s house that you don’t know,” Ms. Borba says.

“The more you get to know who else is raising your children, the parents of your children’s friends, the better off your child is.”

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