There were few things I treasured more than spending an overnight (they weren’t called “sleepovers” in those days) at the home of close family friends. After all, I’d practically grown up alongside their daughter. Together, we’d enjoyed beach days, tree-climbing expeditions and countless games of tetherball. We’d shared overnights since we were 4. I loved them.
What I didn’t love was the shouting — no, make that screaming — that often reverberated throughout that house. Yelling. Swearing. Slamming. Scenes enacted between the mom and dad; the mom and older sister; the two sisters.
With little basis for comparison (maybe other families behave like this?), I don’t remember mentioning these incidents to my own parents. I had no clue that the emotions I sometimes felt watching this — fear, confusion, discomfort — meant that something might have been very wrong in that home.
As a young parent, I often wondered whether my own children ever witnessed episodes of turmoil, dysfunction or worse in other people’s homes. Yet, I don’t remember asking them the simple question: “While you were over at Jess’ or Bobby’s or Emily’s house, did everyone get along?”
I also don’t recall inquiring about the kinds of things parents think much longer and harder about today. Who’s watching the kids? Are drugs or alcohol within reach? Who’s sleeping where?
Now, older and wiser, I know better. I get that things can happen in other houses; that different families have different rules, and these rules might not mesh with our own. And that it’s OK — actually essential — that we address those differences and make “sleepover” decisions based on how well we know the friend’s parents and whether we’ve seen them interact with their kids and with each other.
Most of all, we need to decide which questions we’ll ask other parents before allowing our child to spend the night in their home — and how we’ll evaluate their answers.
What to ask
These five questions top my list. Feel free to add some of your own:
1. Is there a gun in your home?
This one’s a no-brainer. According to a Rand report, 34 percent of children in the United States live in homes with at least one firearm. In 69 percent of homes with firearms and children, more than one firearm is present. In 9 percent of homes with children and guns, at least one of the weapons is stored unlocked and loaded.
Yet, many parents, quick to ask about curfews, supervision and whether there are enough booster seats in the Volvo, often breeze right past the gun issue, even though, according to The Center to Prevent Youth Violence, 1,600 gun-related youth deaths result every year from kids having access to firearms in homes.
2. Who’s watching the kids?
Chances are, you spend time and effort vetting the baby-sitters you leave your kids with when you go out. OK, so you can’t interview your child’s friend’s nanny, the neighborhood teen or his grandmother. But if you’ve learned a baby-sitter — not a parent — will be staying with the kids, you can ask the parents a few questions, such as: How old is the baby-sitter? Has she stayed with your children before? What activities does she have planned? Who will she contact in an emergency? Does she have any physical disabilities? Is she allowed to discipline the kids?
3. Is someone keeping an eye on the Internet?
Better yet, is someone making sure the kids are not sending photos of themselves to strangers, or sharing their names or phone numbers? Evaluate the computer safety issue with these tips for kids — from Common Sense Media — and share them with your children and with their friends’ parents:
• Visit only age-appropriate sites. Check out the site before your kids visit it.
• Search safely. Use safe search settings for young kids or think about applying filtering software to limit inappropriate exposure.
• Avoid strangers. Explain to your kids that if someone they don’t know talks to them, they shouldn’t respond, but should let you know.
• Be a good cybercitizen. If your children wouldn’t do something in real life, they shouldn’t do it online. Find out how they can report mean behavior or unkind content on their favorite sites and teach them how to do it.
• Use the computer in a central place. Keep the computer in a location where you can see what’s going on.
• Avoid going online without a parent’s permission.
4. Will the kids be going out or staying home?
Didn’t know your daughter would be going to that R-rated film? That’s because you didn’t ask. Which brings us to one of your sleepover goals: You’d like as few surprises as possible. Maybe the kids are just going bowling. You’d still like to know that; perhaps the roads are superslick and you’d rather your child not venture out on them. Don’t assume that just because your child arrived at his friend’s house, backpack, jammies and sleeping bag in tow, he’ll spend the evening lounging around the family room playing Parcheesi.
5. Anyone else in the house?
Are there other relatives — cousins, uncles, grandparents — in the home? Will the teenage brother be entertaining friends? Make sure you — and your child — feel comfortable with any extended family or additional visitors who are present. Ask about sleeping arrangements: Will the kids be by themselves in a bedroom? On the floor in the playroom? Sharing a room with siblings?
Pay attention to the way other parents answer these — and other — questions. If they’re offended by them or they claim you’re too protective or even worse, they simply laugh it all off, you might want to check out the movie at the local cinema, grab your child and a big bag of popcorn, and make a night of it.
Linda Morgan is managing editor of ParentMap and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential. She is also an on-air parenting expert for KING TV.