Too young for a sleep-over?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 19, 2010 06:00 AM

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What is the right age for a sleep-over? My 4-year-old son was invited to his cousin's house -- is that appropriate? And this might be a different question (because I trust my sister's family), but how do I broach the "touching" issue? I've said make sure that you tell mommy or daddy if he feels uncomfortable. Is that enough?

From: Valerie, Winchester, MA

Hi Valerie,

That's a little young; 6 or 7 is more typical.

But sleep-overs at relatives' homes are the best way to begin this quaint social custom (it's such an American rite of passage!), assuming this is a home where the child is already comfortable, and knows the people love him.

The key is that he wants to go. If he doesn't, I would never do it; wait until he's ready. Sometimes older cousins talk a younger child into wanting to go, and that's OK, if everyone understands that's what's happening. But if he tells you privately, "I don't want to, mama" -- or he changes his mind at the last minute -- help him bow out gracefully: "That's OK, when you're ready, we can try," and tell them, "You know what? John isn't ready." Period, matter of fact, end of topic, even if it's on the afternoon of the sleepover.

Of course, you have to feel good about it, too. Make it clear that he can come home if he wants to, at any point, and make that clear to the hosting parents, relative or not, so they don't feel badly calling you in the middle of the night.

The touching issue is a separate conversation. If you've never had it and you are suddenly having it because he's sleeping out, it may come across as strange. By 4 and 5, it's time to have that conversation, regardless. I love the idea of teaching about personal space but keeping your child safe from inappropriate touching starts with matter-of-factly identifying the private parts of the body.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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12 comments so far...
  1. If you feel like you need to have the touching conversation before sending him to a sleepover, it's a sign you shouldn't send him.

    At 4, all you need to do is identify the private parts, and explain that 'private' means that nobody should be touching them other than to help him get clean or for a medical exam. If he asks questions, fine, but otherwise, that's all he needs. You can also mention that his body is HIS, and he gets to say who touches him and how. If someone pushes or hits, he can tell them to stop. If someone wants to hug him and he doesn't want a hug, it's OK to say "no hug, please". And if anyone keeps touching him after he asks them to stop, he needs to get help from a grownup he trusts. Again, no need to go into detailed scenarios about 'bad touching' - just stuff he can grasp. The more nuanced stuff can come later.

    Posted by akmom November 19, 10 06:40 AM
  1. At your sister's house is a completely different question than at a schoolmate's house. For my kids, who spend a couple afternoons a week with my sister's family, it was a no-brainer at 4. But Barbara's 6 or 7 is correct for non-family.

    Posted by Dan November 19, 10 08:29 AM
  1. I volunteer at a rape crisis center (not in Boston) and I can tell you that if a rape crisis center has enough resources to expand beyond a hotline -- which the wonderful Boston Area Rape Crisis Center does -- it is a WONDERFUL resource for parents looking for ways to protect their children and teach them how to protect themselves.

    I have never worked with four-year-olds, but here is the basic script of our program for kindergarteners to fourth-graders:

    Just as Barbara and akmom have said, this begins with identifying the private parts of the body. We might say something like, "The private parts of your body are the parts covered by your bathing suit."

    Then, we emphasize that "Your body belongs to you. No one is allowed to touch the private parts of your body without your permission. Sometimes you need some help, like if your parents help you take a bath [or when you were a baby and you needed your diaper changing, or when you go to the doctor and your parents are there], but most of the time, nobody needs to touch the private parts of your body."

    Then we talk about touches. We talk about "good touches" -- hugs, kisses, shaking hands, high fives; "bad touches" -- punching, kicking, biting (kids tend to have lots of fun coming up with examples of these); and "uncomfortable touches." This is the category we place child sexual abuse in. We don't give specific examples of sexual abuse, but we say that if a person is being touched on the private parts of their body when they don't want to be, they feel uncomfortable. (For another example of uncomfortable touches, I usually talk about tickling -- a little bit of tickling doesn't hurt, but when someone tickles you a lot even when you want them to stop, it becomes uncomfortable.)

    Then we talk about what to do if someone is touching you in a way that you do not like or that makes you feel uncomfortable: "Say NO, get away, and tell someone." (We call this the "safe" thing to do, not the "right" thing to do, because we know there may be children in our audience who have been abused and not been able to or known how to do all those things, and we don't want to tell them they have done anything wrong.)

    When I am giving this program in a classroom, I usually look around the room and find the adults -- the teacher, teacher's assistant, guidance counselor -- and point them out as people who will listen and help if a child tells them a scary or uncomfortable thing has happened. I also have the children give examples of adults in their lives they can tell -- their parents, grandparents, adult relatives, afterschool teachers, sports coaches, etc. We talk about how it's important to talk to an adult, that telling your friend, your dog etc. can make you feel better, but an adult can help you.

    Finally, I emphasize that if a child is touched in a way that he or she does not like, it is not the child's fault (dialogue at this point: "Whose fault is it?" "The person who did it!!"). This is crucial because abusers often attempt to convince abused children that they are the guilty ones and that they will get into trouble if they tell. We have to make sure children understand that it is safe to tell if this happens to them.

    ---

    Sorry that was so long. There are other things we talk about too but that is the basics. I really do recommend talking to someone at a Rape Crisis Center for more information and recommendations on how to help your four-year-old in particular. They should be able to find some picture books that emphasize exactly these concepts, too (we use one with the kindergarteners but I can't remember the title.)

    Before I click Submit I want to THANK YOU for being concerned about keeping your child safe and taking steps to educate yourself. The world needs a LOT more parents like you.

    Posted by Susan November 19, 10 09:15 AM
  1. If you trust your sister's family so much, why is the touching question tacked on to the sleepover question?

    Posted by di November 19, 10 09:21 AM
  1. Susan, thank YOU for such an informative and educational reply. I agree with everything you said.

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page November 19, 10 11:45 AM
  1. most child abuse occurs within the family. in most cases, people are shocked and disbelieving that the perpetrator was capable of abuse; most indicate that they completely trusted the person. i don't think warnings should be given immediately prior to a sleepover - that will just confuse the child and make him anxious. clear guidance, including that it is okay sometimes to hurt other people's feelings - by asking to come home early or by not giving a stranger directions, for example. i told my daughter when she was very young that it was her body, and that other people should never touch her without a good reason (doctors, bath-time help like the other posters said) - by the time she went to a sleep over she knew how to call home herself.

    Posted by esmerelda November 19, 10 12:26 PM
  1. Susan, thanks for the great advice! My younger boys are 4 and 6. My six-year-old just became a cub scout and there is a section in their book that covers personal safety. My husband read it with my son and we were totally, totally shocked about how naive and gullible our son - who we would consider a smart, savvy child - is. I know that my boys have gotten information similar to what you provided in daycare, pre-school and kindergarten but the cub scouts exercise emphasized that we also need to be reinforcing this at home, and it's a message that kids need to hear more than once, and in more than one setting. And thank you for volunteering in such an important role.

    Posted by Jen November 19, 10 02:29 PM
  1. Dear Susan,
    Incredibly informational and HELPFUL comments!! I am a paranoid mother, I am constantly fretting on how to expalin these things to my 9,7 and 5 year olds!!! I especially like your info on making sure the child knows it is not his/her fault and it is SAFE to tell someone they trust! There are so many weirdo's out there and I NEVER want to be one of those parents who finds out years later if something ever happaned to my child.

    Posted by Gilly5 November 21, 10 02:16 AM
  1. Personally, I would never do it. In my experience as a child, the family rules change when all the doors are closed and you're locked in for the night. It may not result in an experience as disturbing as molestation, but could mean the child is the target of nasty remarks or cruel behavior directed and him or others in the home. It's asking a lot to expect a youngster (of whatever age) to disrupt that and ask to call his parents. We have allowed our only daughter to do select sleepovers, about once a year, when we knew and trusted the adults involved and it worked out well. But I believe if you're having uneasy feelings, you should listen to your gut and not spend the night in agony wondering if you did the right thing.

    Posted by 23riversx2b November 21, 10 08:39 AM
  1. Susan, my wife and I will be using your comments as a template for an overdue discussion with our 7 year old daughter. THANK YOU!

    Posted by bob November 22, 10 01:23 PM
  1. Hmmm. I guess I'm a little more free range than anyone on the boards here so far. My son slept over my cousin's house starting at 2 for babysitting. We swapped kids every few months. It helped that his son was within a year older. We also helped out when they had their second child. My son has slept over at his grandparents a few times as well. I agree though with the person who posted, if your child does not want to go, then they are not ready. Each child is different.

    Posted by ML November 22, 10 06:41 PM
  1. Tell your child to tell MOMMY if anybody touches him in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable! The most likely inappropriate toucher is going to be the Daddy or the Daddy-substitute (step dad, adopted dad, mom's significant other). You may not want to believe it, but that great guy you married may be a molester. My ex was, and has a prison record to prove it.

    Posted by Laura Billington July 24, 11 12:33 PM
 
12 comments so far...
  1. If you feel like you need to have the touching conversation before sending him to a sleepover, it's a sign you shouldn't send him.

    At 4, all you need to do is identify the private parts, and explain that 'private' means that nobody should be touching them other than to help him get clean or for a medical exam. If he asks questions, fine, but otherwise, that's all he needs. You can also mention that his body is HIS, and he gets to say who touches him and how. If someone pushes or hits, he can tell them to stop. If someone wants to hug him and he doesn't want a hug, it's OK to say "no hug, please". And if anyone keeps touching him after he asks them to stop, he needs to get help from a grownup he trusts. Again, no need to go into detailed scenarios about 'bad touching' - just stuff he can grasp. The more nuanced stuff can come later.

    Posted by akmom November 19, 10 06:40 AM
  1. At your sister's house is a completely different question than at a schoolmate's house. For my kids, who spend a couple afternoons a week with my sister's family, it was a no-brainer at 4. But Barbara's 6 or 7 is correct for non-family.

    Posted by Dan November 19, 10 08:29 AM
  1. I volunteer at a rape crisis center (not in Boston) and I can tell you that if a rape crisis center has enough resources to expand beyond a hotline -- which the wonderful Boston Area Rape Crisis Center does -- it is a WONDERFUL resource for parents looking for ways to protect their children and teach them how to protect themselves.

    I have never worked with four-year-olds, but here is the basic script of our program for kindergarteners to fourth-graders:

    Just as Barbara and akmom have said, this begins with identifying the private parts of the body. We might say something like, "The private parts of your body are the parts covered by your bathing suit."

    Then, we emphasize that "Your body belongs to you. No one is allowed to touch the private parts of your body without your permission. Sometimes you need some help, like if your parents help you take a bath [or when you were a baby and you needed your diaper changing, or when you go to the doctor and your parents are there], but most of the time, nobody needs to touch the private parts of your body."

    Then we talk about touches. We talk about "good touches" -- hugs, kisses, shaking hands, high fives; "bad touches" -- punching, kicking, biting (kids tend to have lots of fun coming up with examples of these); and "uncomfortable touches." This is the category we place child sexual abuse in. We don't give specific examples of sexual abuse, but we say that if a person is being touched on the private parts of their body when they don't want to be, they feel uncomfortable. (For another example of uncomfortable touches, I usually talk about tickling -- a little bit of tickling doesn't hurt, but when someone tickles you a lot even when you want them to stop, it becomes uncomfortable.)

    Then we talk about what to do if someone is touching you in a way that you do not like or that makes you feel uncomfortable: "Say NO, get away, and tell someone." (We call this the "safe" thing to do, not the "right" thing to do, because we know there may be children in our audience who have been abused and not been able to or known how to do all those things, and we don't want to tell them they have done anything wrong.)

    When I am giving this program in a classroom, I usually look around the room and find the adults -- the teacher, teacher's assistant, guidance counselor -- and point them out as people who will listen and help if a child tells them a scary or uncomfortable thing has happened. I also have the children give examples of adults in their lives they can tell -- their parents, grandparents, adult relatives, afterschool teachers, sports coaches, etc. We talk about how it's important to talk to an adult, that telling your friend, your dog etc. can make you feel better, but an adult can help you.

    Finally, I emphasize that if a child is touched in a way that he or she does not like, it is not the child's fault (dialogue at this point: "Whose fault is it?" "The person who did it!!"). This is crucial because abusers often attempt to convince abused children that they are the guilty ones and that they will get into trouble if they tell. We have to make sure children understand that it is safe to tell if this happens to them.

    ---

    Sorry that was so long. There are other things we talk about too but that is the basics. I really do recommend talking to someone at a Rape Crisis Center for more information and recommendations on how to help your four-year-old in particular. They should be able to find some picture books that emphasize exactly these concepts, too (we use one with the kindergarteners but I can't remember the title.)

    Before I click Submit I want to THANK YOU for being concerned about keeping your child safe and taking steps to educate yourself. The world needs a LOT more parents like you.

    Posted by Susan November 19, 10 09:15 AM
  1. If you trust your sister's family so much, why is the touching question tacked on to the sleepover question?

    Posted by di November 19, 10 09:21 AM
  1. Susan, thank YOU for such an informative and educational reply. I agree with everything you said.

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page November 19, 10 11:45 AM
  1. most child abuse occurs within the family. in most cases, people are shocked and disbelieving that the perpetrator was capable of abuse; most indicate that they completely trusted the person. i don't think warnings should be given immediately prior to a sleepover - that will just confuse the child and make him anxious. clear guidance, including that it is okay sometimes to hurt other people's feelings - by asking to come home early or by not giving a stranger directions, for example. i told my daughter when she was very young that it was her body, and that other people should never touch her without a good reason (doctors, bath-time help like the other posters said) - by the time she went to a sleep over she knew how to call home herself.

    Posted by esmerelda November 19, 10 12:26 PM
  1. Susan, thanks for the great advice! My younger boys are 4 and 6. My six-year-old just became a cub scout and there is a section in their book that covers personal safety. My husband read it with my son and we were totally, totally shocked about how naive and gullible our son - who we would consider a smart, savvy child - is. I know that my boys have gotten information similar to what you provided in daycare, pre-school and kindergarten but the cub scouts exercise emphasized that we also need to be reinforcing this at home, and it's a message that kids need to hear more than once, and in more than one setting. And thank you for volunteering in such an important role.

    Posted by Jen November 19, 10 02:29 PM
  1. Dear Susan,
    Incredibly informational and HELPFUL comments!! I am a paranoid mother, I am constantly fretting on how to expalin these things to my 9,7 and 5 year olds!!! I especially like your info on making sure the child knows it is not his/her fault and it is SAFE to tell someone they trust! There are so many weirdo's out there and I NEVER want to be one of those parents who finds out years later if something ever happaned to my child.

    Posted by Gilly5 November 21, 10 02:16 AM
  1. Personally, I would never do it. In my experience as a child, the family rules change when all the doors are closed and you're locked in for the night. It may not result in an experience as disturbing as molestation, but could mean the child is the target of nasty remarks or cruel behavior directed and him or others in the home. It's asking a lot to expect a youngster (of whatever age) to disrupt that and ask to call his parents. We have allowed our only daughter to do select sleepovers, about once a year, when we knew and trusted the adults involved and it worked out well. But I believe if you're having uneasy feelings, you should listen to your gut and not spend the night in agony wondering if you did the right thing.

    Posted by 23riversx2b November 21, 10 08:39 AM
  1. Susan, my wife and I will be using your comments as a template for an overdue discussion with our 7 year old daughter. THANK YOU!

    Posted by bob November 22, 10 01:23 PM
  1. Hmmm. I guess I'm a little more free range than anyone on the boards here so far. My son slept over my cousin's house starting at 2 for babysitting. We swapped kids every few months. It helped that his son was within a year older. We also helped out when they had their second child. My son has slept over at his grandparents a few times as well. I agree though with the person who posted, if your child does not want to go, then they are not ready. Each child is different.

    Posted by ML November 22, 10 06:41 PM
  1. Tell your child to tell MOMMY if anybody touches him in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable! The most likely inappropriate toucher is going to be the Daddy or the Daddy-substitute (step dad, adopted dad, mom's significant other). You may not want to believe it, but that great guy you married may be a molester. My ex was, and has a prison record to prove it.

    Posted by Laura Billington July 24, 11 12:33 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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