Sleepovers, family values and identity Part 1 – The risk equation

Last December I poked the oracle — my Facebook friends — asking for writing suggestions and the oracle obliged. Then Christmas happened, then work happened, then snowmaggedon happened, and one day I was riding the bus home as I usually do, thinking thoughts as I usually do, and I found myself in physical pain from not writing anything more meaningful than an email in over two months*, with big ideas and feelings stuck sideways and no way to knock them loose.

* I started writing this intro in February. It’s now April, and I have been writing more meaningful things than emails at work. Like this

In my last topic request, people asked me to write about several overlapping things. At least they did in my mind.


The topic as they came out were:

  • Keeping kids on track when your values don’t align with those of the people around you.
  • Our policy about sleepovers and how we negotiate it.
  • The general idea of growing and nurturing a family culture.

These topics work well together because how we manage sleepovers is a perfect sounding board to reflect on family culture and identity, and how we negotiate being different than those around us..  

As a rule, we do not allow sleepovers. When our four oldest children were young, it was a hard and fast rule with no exception. Now that our family has grown in age and size, experience and wisdom have brought some nuance to our position. But as a principle, we view sleepovers as unnecessary and generally unhealthy for children. The risk they pose is disproportionate to the benefit they offer. Let me explain.

There are risks in life that we can’t control and risks that we have no choice to expose ourselves to. Every time we take a vehicle we take a risk. We take a risk standing at a cross walk and sitting on our front lawn. Unconsciously — for the most part — I consider that the benefit of sitting on my front lawn outweighs the risk that I will catch a deadly mosquito-born disease. Everyone performs the risk calculation differently and that’s why we have people who don’t let their children play in the grass during tick season and people who travel to the Amazon with their baby in a backpack. 

Children are vulnerable and part of our responsibility  is to protect them. Vulnerability to risk is not only a function of physical strength and size, but also of maturity and wisdom. To properly manage a risk, we need to be able to see and gauge it. That ability comes with a gradual exposure to situations we can handle and success in handling them . That’s why I don’t allow a 2 year-old outside unsupervised but I do allow a 7 year-old outside unsupervised on my property. I don’t allow my 10 year-old to bike outside our neighbourhood but I do allow my 17 year-old to take my car and go to the grocery store to buy some Ben & Jerry’s providing that she brings some back for me. 

If I were to put the risk/benefit calculation on a quadrant, it would look a little like this:

When I speak to parents about sleepovers, they often mention the necessity to let children learn from experience and the scourge of over-protection. I completely agree with both sentiments but I see judgement as a muscle. Muscle strength builds in increments as does the ability to see, appreciate and handle risk.  

The existence of risk is appreciated against a steady state, a baseline. Our “spidey sense” is a sense — perceived by our lizard brain before it reaches our frontal cortex — that something is amiss, something is jarring. My job as a parent is to lay down a strong foundation of normal and loving interactions against which my children can gauge weird, inappropriate, abusive, and no good ones. 

That sense of deliberate and conscious parenting is where sleepovers start being problematic. When I send my children to someone else’s house overnight, I am making an assumption that this person’s appreciation of “normal” and “age-appropriate” is the same as mine. If my children do not yet have a strong sense of what is normal and appropriate in our family, I am introducing a new layer of information for them to process. In most cases, the differences will be mild and inoffensive. But in the rare cases when they aren’t, confusion is what allows molesters to groom their victims and act under the protection of guilt and shame.

The risk of exposing my children to abuse, traumatizing content or a dangerous situation during a sleepover might be low, but the impact can be life-altering. All it takes is one visiting family friend, one big sister’s boyfriend, one big brother’s experimentation and curiosity. I heard stories of children being left alone after bedtime when the parents went out, children hiding under beds while a drunk parent flew into a rage, children being shown juvenile porn by an older brother, children being molested by the teenage babysitter hired by their friend’s parents. What degree of risk are we willing to tolerate when it comes to sexual or physical abuse? How low a risk is low enough when the risk is not necessary? Must our children learn about perverts by experience? Or are they better off not learning first hand about certain things? 

When it comes to low risk and high impact, I have to make the right call 100% of the time. An abuser (or an idiot) only has to be right once to traumatize my child and change the course of a life. 

As far as our family is concerned, sleepovers pose a completely unnecessary risk that is  (A) completely avoidable, and (B) offers no specific benefit. There’s enough situations I can’t control. This is not one of them.