Janixa De Jesus has four children ranging from 1 to 17 years old, and none of them has ever been on a sleepover.
They haven’t even been on a play date.
“I wouldn’t trust someone else with the most valuable thing I have in my life,” said De Jesus, a fitness and nutrition coach from Chicago. “I don’t feel comfortable letting them go under anyone else’s authority. I know what’s good for me and my standard.”
Sleepovers were a “rite of passage” during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s for middle-class Americans, but today many parents are rejecting them, fearing sexual abuse and loss of control, said Paula Fass, author of “End of American Childhood” and history professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
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The classic sleepover: pizza followed by ice-cream sundaes, prank phone calls and movie upon movie until you finally crash as the sun starts to rise may have seen better days. And while there are no statistics about the number of slumber parties today compared with a decade or two ago, all you have to do is Google “sleepovers” to be bombarded with advice on how and why to avoid sending your child to them.
“There’s a decline of this as a regular experience among regular kids,” Fass said.
In the past, parents would simply trust other parents. Today, there’s a major concern about pedophilia.
“If you can’t trust the priest and the Boy Scout leader, how can you trust people you barely know?” Fass asked.
Another factor leading to the decline of sleepovers is the Tiger Mom attitude: maintaining control of your children every minute of the day.
For Nicolette McKinlay, a writer in Boise, the door on sleepovers closed forever after her cousin was sexually molested by her uncle when she stayed overnight at another cousin’s house.
“My parents decided then that our family would not do sleepovers,” McKinlay said. “Now, as a parent of four children myself, I mirror their decision. In my opinion, sleepovers just aren’t worth it.”
Even if sexual abuse doesn’t happen, children and teens can still take part in underage drinking, drug experimentation, online bullying, unsupervised online activity or sneaking out of the house, McKinlay said.
But there’s danger in everything if you’re looking for it, said Lenore Skenazy, author and founder of the Free Range Kids movement.
“If you’re only looking for what could go wrong, that’s all you see,” Skenazy said. “If your parents trusted you to handle sleepovers, I don’t see why you’d think your kids are in more or less danger.”
Skenazy said that if we keep redefining childhood experiences as dangerous and in need of a chaperone, we’ll take away extraordinarily important aspects of our children’s lives and replace them with fear.
But McKinlay said that if she can remove the threat of something potentially awful from happening to her children during a sleepover, then why wouldn’t she?
“I know I can’t shelter my children from every danger in the world, but they will survive without sleepovers,” she said.
“They will survive, but will they thrive?” asked Elizabeth Berger, a New York-based child psychiatrist and author of “Raising Children With Character.”
Children need to be encouraged to trust their instincts regarding dangers, and they should also learn to have the confidence to notify their parents if something doesn’t feel right, Berger said. “The child must be fortified with optimism and the skills to navigate that world, not burdened with fright and forbidden to venture into the world at all.”
If you’re constantly telling your child that only your home is safe, then the implication is that every other place is unsafe, said Michael Thompson, a psychologist and author of “Homesick and Happy.”
“That’s incredibly destructive, and it makes children anxious,” Thompson said.
When children go to a sleepover or sleep-away camp, they’re building independence skills and creating a feeling of psychological ownership.
“The child has to know that he did it: ‘I was fine,’ “ Thompson said. “That’s an achievement.”
Skenazy recommended teaching your child the three R’s. Recognize that nobody should touch you. Resist if someone is doing something you don’t like. And Report if an adult tells you something you’re not comfortable with.
“We keep taking away any time they can practice being in charge,” Skenazy said. “They have to become the adults, and this allows them to start practicing the kind of skills they need to get – a little self-awareness, problem-solving and bravery.”
It’ll also help the adults become a little braver as well.