The days when sleepovers conjured up images of giggling teenage girls painting their toenails and talking about boys have pretty much gone the way of baby-doll pajamas.
These days, parents are routinely asked to make decisions about sleepovers with guest lists that include boys and girls. Sometimes it’s a closely supervised event at a school, church or synagogue. Sometimes it’s an invitation to a party at a friend’s house that extends to everyone spending the night.
Kim Estes, founder of Savvy Parents Safe Kids, says questions about sleepovers are the most common questions she gets from parents. She urges them to start thinking about the issue from the time a child is in kindergarten.
There are days that you’re going to make decisions that are not popular.
“Each parent has to weigh his or her comfort level and options,” she says. “You don’t have to be your kid’s friend. There are days that you’re going to make decisions that are not popular.”
Estes cautions parents to ask specific questions about any sleepover: What is the plan (including details such as which movies will be shown, what games played, etc.)? Who is going to be there? What is the clear pick-up and drop-off time?
“I’m always shocked at the number of parents who just do the drop-off,” she says. “Get out of the car and go meet the parents.”
One option she suggests is a “half-sleepover.” “They can go, bring their sleeping bag, enjoy all the activities, the movie, the pizza. Then you pick them up.”
Amy Lang, Seattle-area parent and sexual health educator, suggests that option for parties at home. “Everybody [boys and girls] is together until midnight and then the boys go home — or everybody goes home.” She cautions that coed sleepovers in private homes carry some risk unless the parents are awake all night and in the room.
“I am pretty conservative when it comes to opportunities for sexual exploration,” Lang says. “Kids vary; groups of kids vary. But if my child were invited to a coed sleepover, I would probably say no.”
So would Margit Crane, author and ADD family coach. She says she remembers chaperoning high school kids years ago for a sleepover at her synagogue in the Los Angeles area. The boys and girls were in the same room, and the adults stayed up all night.
Today, she’s not a big fan of these kinds of events.
“I’m not a wait-for-marriage kind of person, but I am a wait-for-maturity kind of person,” she says. “Coed is just weird to me. I think you end up sending a message I don’t think you want to send.”
Estes agrees, particularly for kids under the age of 13 or 14. Organizations serving groups of children are sometimes magnets for predators, she says. “As a safety educator and a parent, I wouldn’t do it.”
Make sleepovers safe
Safety is a primary concern at the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where David Hallgren, pastor of children and family ministries, supervises an active youth program*. Activities include occasional sleepovers at the church and off-campus retreats.
All activities adhere to clearly defined policies, such as never permitting one leader to be in a group by himself. A group of 30 may have five or six adult leaders. “There are some best practices for this kind of thing. We don’t do it any other way,” he says. “It’s for the protection of the adults, as well as the students.”
Each event involves registration forms, including family contacts, medical histories and other information. For a sleepover at the church, boys are in one wing and girls in the other. Adults are at the doors to make sure no one comes in or goes out. And there is a police officer on site.
“We’re in the U District. It’s different here at night than it is during the day,” Hallgren says. “The last thing we want is one of the kids out on the Ave at midnight.”
Find positive places
Although Lang urges caution, she is comfortable with closely supervised sleepovers sponsored by organizations, such as sports teams, schools or churches. The circumstances are entirely different, she says, not as relaxed or casual. And there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules — getting kicked off the team or being banned from future activities.
“I think these experiences for young people are really, really valuable for learning about community, about relationships, about friendships,” she says.
Hallgren says that at University Presbyterian, it’s important for students to see the church as more than a place for dressing up and going to church on Sunday. “It helps the students know that this is a place for them,” he says. “It’s a place that knows them, that understands them, that invites them.”
The retreats and sleepovers serve another purpose, he says. They can be a respite for students who are under daily pressure with homework, sports and activities.
“Giving them an overnight or a weekend retreat allows them to just be kids. They can come and run and play and laugh and sing and goof off,” he says. “It’s meaningful to them.”
*Editor's note: Since this story first published in October 2011, David Hallgren has left his role at University Presbyterian Church. He is now pastor of Pennington Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. This story was updated in June 2018.