Growing up, Avnee Patel spent practically every other weekend sleeping over at her best friend’s house, and her parents never thought twice about letting her participate in the childhood ritual. But the 44-year-old Ashburn, Virginia, mom says she doesn’t plan on letting her own children, ages 9, 6 and 1, attend sleepovers at their friends’ homes anytime soon.
“Maybe I’ve just watched too many episodes of Law & Order: SVU,” she says. “But I’m paranoid about what could happen.”
That anxiety, she adds, isn’t unfounded. Patel was shocked to recently learn that a friend had been sexually abused by a close relative in childhood. She’s also aware of some grim statistics: 93% of sexual assault victims under the age of 18 know their abusers, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. As a result, she wants to do everything possible to protect her own children.
Sleepovers have long been considered a rite of childhood for many American kids — featured prominently in popular culture, from classic movies like Grease to contemporary shows and books like Gossip Girl and The Baby-Sitters Club series. But now, there is a growing movement of parents in the U.S., like Patel, enforcing “no sleepover” rules for their children. The subject has become a hotly-contested parenting topic online, with millions of parents debating the safety and merits of sleepovers using the hashtag #NoSleepovers and posting their perspectives on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and parenting blogs.
“Maybe I’ve just watched too many episodes of Law & Order: SVU. But I’m paranoid about what could happen.”
Some parents believe that allowing their children to spend the night away from home exposes them to different lifestyles and values, from disrupted sleep schedules to inappropriate online content and diverging attitudes toward social issues — or even leaves them vulnerable to serious trauma such as sexual abuse and gun violence. Others argue that such fears are overblown and that sleepovers are an important part of growing up.
“My parents allowed me to sleep over as a kid — especially with one particular family,” says Mary Falade, a 34-year-old mother of two, ages 2 and 5, in Queens, New York. “But nowadays, we are more aware of the dangers that kids can be exposed to. Having that knowledge, it feels irresponsible to let my children take part in [them].”
Online discussions on the sleepover debate garner significant attention, often going viral — and sometimes become divisive, as both camps defend their own parenting choices and criticize those who don’t agree. Videos like one posted by Terra Avilla, a child sex crimes investigator who says she’ll never let her own kids attend sleepovers because of the risk of abuse, add fuel to the fire.
Chancè Hindir-Lane, a mother of four in Maryland who shares stories about her family and parenting on various social media channels, recently posted a short TikTok video summarizing her views on the subject: “My husband and I are the only people in this world responsible for our children’s protection. There are so many things that could happen at a sleepover: bullying, abuse, guns. You cannot control anyone else’s environment but your own. The possibility that my child might have a good time, or come back with a trauma — what do you think I’m picking?”
That TikTok received more than 875,000 views and 100,000 “likes,” with numerous commenters echoing her sentiments. “Agree. Most abuse is committed by people close to the family. Can’t trust ANYONE with your babies,” TikTok user @summeradan0 responded.
But not all the commenters were on board with her philosophy. “I don’t know what kind of sleepovers you have had but they were the best fun of my childhood … all night giggling. They are going to resent missing out,” TikTok user @ashleyjenae_ commented.
Experts are divided
Some experts believe the fear of sleepovers is the result of a culture that has become disconnected and overexposed to the worst stories in the news.
Christina Emeh, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, says some of the changing attitudes around sleepovers have to do with being “less connected to other families in our neighborhood and more connected to news stories that warn of dangers in our backyard.” She adds that “parents have become more involved in micro-managing their children’s interactions, and parents who were traumatized in the past, or have heard of the traumas of others, are more protective of their children out of fear.”
Emeh also says that sleepovers can have a positive impact on child development. “Sleepovers can assist kids with increasing their independence through managing their personal needs and integrating within a new family system,” she explains. “Participating in activities where children can make their own decisions can help increase their independence and collaboration with peers — these can be gained in a sleepover.”
About half of all Americans agree. A YouGov survey from January 2023 found that 52% of U.S. adults say sleepovers have more of a positive impact on a child’s well-being, while one in eight say they have a negative effect.
“My husband and I are the only people in this world responsible for our children’s protection. There are so many things that could happen at a sleepover: bullying, abuse, guns. You cannot control anyone else’s environment but your own.”
But Dr. Larry Mitnaul, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Wichita, Kansas, says there are plenty of other experiences that can help kids develop, both independently and with their peers, that don’t involve the possibility of an experience that could also “derail our kids in a way that might be hard to recover from.”
Mitnaul, who has six children of his own, doesn’t allow them to spend the night at their friends’ homes. Sleepovers often provide children the opportunity to get into things “that are way over their heads,” including access to pornography or inappropriate online connections, as well as experimentation with illicit substances — not to mention exposure to even more serious traumas, such as abuse.
He adds that sleepovers have only been popularized in American culture since the 1950s — a “relatively modern invention in the history of civilization,” he says. Parents today have an “opportunity to rethink the things that we typically consider to be a rite of passage and to ask ourselves the most important question, which is: ‘Is this helpful in the development of our kids in helping them reach maturity in a healthy way?’”
Mitnaul regularly posts advice about parenting in the digital age on TikTok, but his two videos explaining his philosophy against sleepovers were among his most popular, garnering 1.2 million and 4 million views, respectively. They were also deeply divisive, setting off a passionate trail of comments debating the merits of disallowing sleepovers.
“But in no way do I want to demonize parents” who do allow sleepovers, he says. Instead, he encourages them to discuss expected behaviors with their children when they are not near their parents and in their own homes. He adds that it’s also important for parents to talk about appropriate and inappropriate touch, as well as substance abuse — and how to navigate an exit plan if they’re in an uncomfortable situation.
As they confront a changing landscape, as well as the expectations and wishes of their own children, some parents are finding compromises.
Alvin O’Neil-McCray, a Los Angeles-based father of two children ages 7 and 9, says his kids typically don’t join planned sleepovers — where the get-together is intentional. However, he does allow for sleepovers that occur “organically.”
“We have organic sleepovers, where there is an existing event with both adults and kids, and the kids want to spend the night,” says McCray, 52. “We allow it because we see the sleepover as an extension of play hours where the kids have already formed a bond in a safe space.”
McCray says that sleepovers in his family happen with parents who are part of a close and trusted circle. During the COVID-19 pandemic when McCray’s community pool closed, friends brought their children to his family’s home to swim. This led to a strong relationship with a small “tribe” of people which is the only group his children can have sleepovers with.
Other parents are willing to let their children attend sleepovers — but just bring them home at bedtime. Beverley Carey, 52, of Warwick, a small town in the U.K., says that she and her husband tried sleepovers with her older stepchildren when the family lived in the U.S., but the children always returned home tired, moody and irritable — and it would take several days for them to recover.
Now, her 11-year-old daughter visits with her friends during sleepovers — but is happy to be collected around 10 p.m. to sleep in her own bed.
Patel, whose children are still fairly young and haven’t been invited to too many sleepovers yet, plans to do the same.
“I’ve said to my kids, ‘I’ll pick you up at the end of the night, and I’m happy to bring you back for breakfast,’” she says. “But the sleeping part? We’ll do that at home.”