Growing up, many adults were never sexually abused during a sleepover - and some were. Some feel that by allowing their child to sleep at another person's house that this is an unnecessary risk. But in reality, it could most likely be argued that there are more children sexually abused by their own parents, siblings, aunts/uncles, cousins, and grandparents than over at a friend's house. Children are abused at family gatherings and birthday parties, in school, and in sports programs, they can even be abused in a doctor's office while their parent is reading a magazine and not watching what the doctor is doing (yes, this has happened to a couple people that support our work.)
The answer is not necessarily to eliminate all the situations that put children in a vulnerable situation, but assess the situation based on our child's age and understanding of body safety, who is involved, the particulars of the situation, and ultimately - what our instinct is telling us.
So before we 'outlaw' play dates and sleepovers, we can first discuss steps to make them safer - in many ways, not just specific to abuse. We can do this by working together with other parents and being open about all these challenging issues that we are often uncomfortable bringing up. It's time we stop taking offense or worrying about giving offense because we want to know the answers to some pretty personal questions.
Rather than put together a list of questions that you can ask a parent of a prospective play date or sleepover, here is a list of things that we as parents could offer to another parent. We realize there are many parents out there that are not thinking at all about any of the potential risks of leaving their child with another parent, so it is our responsibility to share our knowledge and build a culture of parenting that puts the safety of children first.
Some of these may depend on the age of children/situation - but we're going to keep it all together for simplicity.
THe Parent Pledge
- To not invite your child over without first inviting you over. It is my responsibility to make you feel comfortable leaving your child in my home, and not expect you to just give me the 'benefit of the doubt.'
- To tell you who lives in my home. Myself and my spouse, and any other adult that lives or is staying here, as well as my other children.
- That to my knowledge, no one in my home has been reported or convicted for sexual or physical assault, and that I will disclose any other felony charge and provide an explanation, if necessary.
- That no one in my home is addicted to drugs or alcohol, and that no one will be drinking excessively or doing illegal drugs while your child is in my home.
- I have spoken to all the adults in my home about body safety rules for children. I have also taught my children - including my older children about body safety and respecting those younger than them.
- I will ask about any potential allergies your child may have or dietary restrictions.
- I will disclose whether or not we own guns and how we secure them.
- I will disclose whether or not we keep alcohol or have prescription pain medication in the house and how we secure that from the children as well. *
- I will talk to you about what kind of television/video games I allow my children to watch/play and ask what restrictions you may have for your children.
- I will limit all internet access to a common area of the house.
- My children do not have internet access on their phones or tablet devices. I will ask if your children do, and would appreciate that they understand I do not allow accessing the internet on phones/tablets in my house.
- I have spoken to my children about the dangers of 'sexting' and hope that you have, too.
- I will allow the children to play on their own, be it in my child's bedroom, the attic, basement etc - but will check on them occasionally.
- I will not let them play outside without my supervision or the supervision of (named) adult.
- I will not let them swim in the pool without my supervision or the supervision of (named) adult.
- I will not allow or take them beyond our yard without communicating and receiving approval from you first.
- I do not tolerate swearing or bullying behavior/language in my home. If I overhear the children making fun or communicating with disrespectful language I will say something to them and expect them to stop.
- If your child is sleeping over, I will let you know who else is sleeping over.
- I will set a 'quiet time' of 'xyz'. They don't necessarily need to go to sleep, but they do need to be quiet.
- I will let you know where they plan to sleep.
- I will not allow my other children to sleep or be allowed where they are sleeping.
- I will let your child know that he/she has a right to call you whenever they want.
- Please let me know if you plan to be out of communication for any period of time (for example - at a doctor's appointment) and how I can reach you or someone else in case of emergency.
- I will not take it personally if you decide to not allow your child over for a play date or sleepover. I understand that we all have triggers and red flags that vary from person to person. If there is something that I can do to make you feel more comfortable, please let me know. Otherwise, you do not need to provide an explanation.
Now, some of those 'pledges' may seem really personal, but ask yourself - if the worst case scenario was true (for example a spouse that was a sexual offender, or an alcoholic) you probably would want to know. And, for example, if someone is an alcoholic, it doesn't mean they're a bad person, but it does mean they may not be safe to be around children. A parent has the right to make an educated decision on what situations are safe for their children.
Likewise, we must also have open conversations with our children (even before we allow sleepovers and play dates without us around) that we're not going to give the thumbs up for every invitation. Maybe we don't want to have that argument every time and decide on a 'no sleepover' rule.
Statistically, about 80% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated in 1:1 situations where a child is alone/out of view of others with another adult or older/more dominant child. By increasing supervision, educating more adults and children on body safety, we decrease risk.
Eliminating one situation while allowing others that may prove equally as dangerous, does not solve the problem. We must always have that "mama bear" mentality when others are around our children - be it friend, family, authority figure, or otherwise.
There is no such thing as a 'zero risk' childhood. In order to allow our children to grow and develop into capable adults we must expose them to certain levels of vulnerability. And it's up to us to try to figure out how and when to do it - it's not easy, but that's parenting.
A great book that deals with these issues and fear is Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker.