Sleepovers can be polarizing events between parents and their children and they can also cause disagreements between parents and the parents of their child's friends. Kids drool over the idea of staying up late to watch movies or play video games with their best buds; giggling, junk food, and adventure are there for the taking. Parents bemoan the noise and mess, lack of sleep, and drama that can happen when multiple friendship dynamics are mixed.
As kids get older, another layer is added: Friendships can evolve into crushes as curious feelings start to swirl through tween and teenage bodies. Hormones kick in, and friendships sometimes go from platonic to romantic. This is the time when parents start to think more about where their kids want to stay the night and who they will be bunking with. The dated sleepover rule of separating genders to avoid handsy interactions as kids get older were always misguided and don't fit what we know about today's more open and evolved youth.
It's time we give the rules a thoughtful overhaul. Here's how to talk to kids (and other parents) about gender diverse sleepovers.
Why Gendered Rules Don't Work
First, we need to recognize that separating genders is not a guarantee of keeping things platonic. I'll let parents in on a little secret: gay tweens and teens exist. As a queer adult, I can assure you that when I was identifying as a female teenager, an all-girl sleepover caused both sweaty palms and anticipation over the opportunity to get cozy with another girl sending closeted gay kid vibes. And as our society advances to be more aware and respectful of the gender spectrum, parents are trying to figure out ways to include their children's diverse group of friends.
There is a really good chance your child is friends with someone who doesn't fit the gender binary (dividing people into male and female based on their sex organs). Transgender and nonbinary youth have always existed, but this generation of kids is thankfully finding the internal strength and external support to come out sooner. With any luck, they have your child as an ally.
Whether you agree with any or all of what I just mentioned, let's all agree that the goal is to keep our kids safe. Parents and guardians can do this with open and nonjudgmental conversations when it comes to sleepovers for older kids. Inclusivity is a must in these conversations: By keeping gendered language out of the equation, you set the tone for everyone to not only feel valued and seen but to be held accountable to house rules.
Starting the Conversation
When talking to your tweens and teens about sleepovers or even extended play or study dates, it's important to recognize that kids have very tight circles of friends who are a mix of genders—time together should not be restricted because of that. However, it's important to establish expectations that everyone is aware of.
Kim Cavill, a sex educator and host of a kid-friendly podcast called Six Minute Sex Ed, suggests having conversations with open-ended questions about family expectations of behavior and values. Parents can "ask 'What kinds of privacy do you think you're entitled to when you have people sleep over?'" Cavill suggests. "This is a good way to invite tweens and teens into conversations about rules, which increases the likelihood of their cooperation and decreases their defensiveness."
Cavill suggests that negotiations over specific rules can happen after everyone has the opportunity to share their own expectations.
The language used during these conversations should refer to the "person" or "friend" your child is spending time with and not simply directed in terms of the boy or girl that you may see as a potential romantic interest. It's in our best interest to be inclusive because then we are giving our kids the chance to be honest with us without shame or fear of judgment. Inclusive language also removes pressure for kids who haven't come out yet. Make it clear what is okay and not okay in your house—regardless of gender.
Keeping Sleepovers Fun and Safe
Hannah Parke is the Camp Director at YWCA Vermont Camp Hochelaga. It's a girls' summer sleepaway camp, but the camp excitedly welcomes transgender and nonbinary campers too. The focus at camp is always on friendship. Parke agrees with Cavill.
"Making guidelines or household policies universal helps avoid any feelings that these rules are attached to identity or orientation," Parke says. "It keeps them centered on safety and the reason why everyone is over for a sleepover: to build friendships and have fun."
Parke adds that she and staff members talk to campers often about how friendships can grow strong, but relationships need to stay platonic while the focus stays on fostering respect for each other's space and bodies. Consent is a core value, too. Parke knows the modeled behavior at camp often bleeds into life at home, so parents can use the same rules Parke sets at Camp Hochelaga when hosting a sleepover.
"[Campers and staff in all age groups] facilitate a dialogue with campers about consent in the context of friendship and daily life. We ask campers to think about and share why they think it is important to ask someone before you give them a hug, sit on their bed, or borrow something that belongs to them. We talk about everyone's right to their own body and their own space at camp."
When Things Get Romantic
But what happens when a relationship becomes more than friendship—whether you know about it or not? While it is always imperative to set boundaries, especially during sleepovers, it is just as important to have open and inclusive conversations about safe sex—no matter the gender or sexual orientation. These conversations need to happen early and often.
If you know your child is dating someone and are comfortable with your child and your child's significant other spending "date nights" at the house or sleeping over as part of a group sleepover, be sure to include the guardians of your child's love interest. Your family values and expectations are yours to make, but an open line of communication between all parties will keep everyone on the same page and ultimately safer. Kim Cavill reminds parents to know the age of consent laws in your state.
"If your child is a minor and they are having consensual sex with their partner who is also a minor, and their partner's parents aren't OK with that, that makes the sex high risk, especially if the age of consent in your state has no close in age exemption." Cavill recommends evaluating the risk level; the relationship may need to stop in order to keep kids from encountering legal consequences.
Perhaps your rule for your child's current age is no touching, no matter the gender or intention. That's fine too. But if you do walk in on something more than friendly happening, don't add shame to the situation. Go back to the expectations everyone agreed to and remind your child and their guest that it is normal to be attracted to others, but acting on that attraction is not allowed.
In the camp setting, Hannah Parke reminds her staff, parents, and guardians of this too. "Depending on age, interest in other people romantically is completely normal! But at camp, we are here to build really strong friendships, to feel strong in our own confidence and identity, and to have a great time."
The Bottom Line
I don't have much advice about the mess that will be created by a room full of tweens or teens, but I do know that a sleepover with happy and informed friends of mixed genders and various sexual orientations is a beautiful, albeit sleep-deprived, scene.