I can count on one hand the times during my childhood that my mother allowed me to sleep over someone else’s house as well as the times she allowed childhood friends to stay for the night at our house. With the exception of a few close cousins, my mom was never about that “spending the night” life. Whether we were at the annual family cookout or an auntie’s birthday party, once the night started winding down and the kids started trying to be slick by falling asleep on the couch or getting in one another’s pajamas, my mom would promptly shut ish down and say:
“Get your clothes on. We’re going home. Maybe next time.”
It didn’t occur to me how rare sleepovers occurred in my childhood, until I got a little older. I remember asking my mom why she was so anti-pajama party. At the time her reply made a whole lot of sense:
“When I was younger my parents would party all night and I NEVER had my bed to myself. There were always 3 kids to a twin size bed and a bunch of cousins sprawled out on the floor. So now that I’m an adult, I appreciate having my house to myself as much as possible.”
Friends had always commented on how “quiet” my childhood home was. With my mom’s upbringing looking like a scene from Menace to Society every other night, I could understand how having a little peace and quiet with no chaos in sight could be the goal as an adult. Like seriously, who really wants to have a bunch of drunk, loud and rambunctious people chilling in your living room every night, let alone around your children.
Now that I’m a mother myself, the idea of my daughter staying over a friend’s house terrifies me. And after reading a post featured on ScaryMommy.com titled, “Why My Family Doesn’t Allow Sleepovers” I am literally considering physically attaching my daughter to my hip so she never has to leave my side. In the piece, writer Elizabeth Broadbent describes experiences where she was allowed to sleepover a friend’s house only to experience sexual abuse at the hands of another child.
“My parents never even knew. It happened the first time at her house. I was 7 years old, the same age that my oldest son is now. She told me her cousin taught her how to do something that made you feel good. Then she proceeded to molest me.”
Broadbent goes on to describe that the incidents began with one sleepover and continued during future sleepovers and even playdates. She talks about the conflicting feelings of pleasure and shame she experienced as child, even praying and worrying that she would get pregnant. Her trauma ended when she eventually ended up “ghosting” the girl after their mothers stopped leading the same Girls Scout troop. Broadbent never told anyone about the incidents until college.
Before I go into the dangers of good touch, bad touch, I feel like it’s my duty as a sex educator to inform parents of the inevitable: Your kids will explore and experiment. They will touch themselves and hump stuffed animals because it feels good physically and they may not always associate those behaviors with “sex” as we know it as adults. You are allowed to conduct your household with your own rules and values when it comes to sex, relationships, and respect but please be aware that all sexual curiosity and behavior do not equal sexual abuse and trauma and in certain circumstances are a normal part of child development.
Actress Lena Dunham caught a windfall of criticism a few years ago after revealing details of sexual experimentation with her siblings during childhood in her book Not That Kind of a Girl, A Young Woman Tells You What She Learned. The controversy left many people questioning: Where does the line get drawn between curiosity and molestation? In the YourTango article, “Drawing the Line Between Curiosity, Abuse and Siblings”. Psychologist Stephanie Buehler says psychologists agree the distinction between the two is determined by one simple thing: Age. According to the Ages and Stages guidelines at HealthyChildren.org which is overseen by The American Academy of Pediatrics, at ages 4 to 5 years of age a child might show an interest in touching “her own genitals and may even show an interest in the genitals of other children.” Sexual abuse or exploitation may become an issue if one of those children is significantly older and coerces a child or has an imbalance of power over the other that put that child at an advantage (I.e. having more experience or knowledge about sexuality).
In other words if your five-year-old is best friends with a six-year-old and ends up engaging in an instance of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” that may just be a part of normal sexual development and curiosity. However if your five-year-old’s thirteen-year-old babysitter tries to pull the same stunt, then it’s probably time to find a new babysitter (if you don’t beat them to death first). Still, Debby Hebernick, associate professor in Indiana University’s School of Public Health and author of Sex Made Easy, says just because a behavior is common doesn’t mean it’s acceptable:
“It’s common for young children to explore their own bodies and even those of friends or siblings in this way. That doesn’t mean it’s OK. And it’s just as common for parents, teachers and caregivers to set boundaries and to teach children what’s OK and what’s not OK.”
A very optimistic version of myself wants to believe that all children innocently explore and all have parents of that have common sense and operate their households on the same lines of respect and boundaries that I do. I also was born in the 90’s before parents were so insistent on parental blocks and before free pornography was just a few clicks away. I can vividly recall my friends and I watching “Skinemax” on Friday night to watch crime solving aliens with big breasts and horrible acting skills wondering why adults were so fascinated with this stuff and further more why did it make us feel kind of “funny”. We also tried to make out what exactly was happening in between those fuzzy lines for the first five seconds we would turn to the Spice Channel. Apart of me has made my peace with the fact that my daughter will have questions and she’ll be curious and although I’ll be falling apart on the inside I hope I can best prepare her to be clear about “good touch, bad touch”, consent and boundaries. Lastly I want to do my best to protect her from those who might do her harm as well as well children raised in households where they are unfortunately last in line of a cycle of abuse and exploitation.
So what does that mean for my household’s policy on sleepovers? I’m not sure. The truth is while I want my child to have a healthy social life and feel like her home is a safe space, I’m also aware of the fact that just like I don’t know what happens in other folks’ homes, the same thing applies to me. The fact is I have an adult male (my husband) in the home and that can make some parents feel uncomfortable even if I know my husband damn near should be “Father of the Year”. And even if my child is staying with a friend whose parents’ I know and trust, I may not know what siblings, aunts or uncles are going to present and what ideas they may have about sexuality. I can’t lock my child up in a closet for the rest of her life, but I can anticipate situations that make me uneasy and therefore err on the side of caution.
So what can you do as a parent so that you can keep your child safe without feeling your stifling your child’s social life? I think it always helps to make an effort to get to know your child’s friends and families. Be transparent about your feelings about sleepovers and supervision, so parents know it’s nothing personal when you decline that sleepover invitation. Most importantly I think the best thing you can do for any child is prepare them to protect themselves. Unfortunately, sexual abuse and exploitation can occur overnight or in broad daylight, so it’s important to have honest but age-appropriate conversations with your kids about “good touch, bad touch”, stranger danger and what they should do in situations that make them uneasy. Because as liberal and sex positive as I may be, when it comes to protecting my child and keeping her safe, I’m actually quite old-fashioned.
Are sleepovers banned in your household? Why or why not?
Images via Bigstock
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.