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Sleepovers in the Sandusky era

Amy Mikler

Picture this. You’re a parent who’s invited a bunch of kids over for your daughter’s birthday sleepover. You think you only have to manage five tweens, but you actually find yourself handling people, situations and dilemmas that wouldn’t be out of place in an NBC sitcom starring Jenny McCarthy. Two lesbian moms. A single divorced dad. An 11-year-old girl in a serious relationship with an iPhone 4. Video games rated M for “mature.” Peanut allergies and EpiPens. Great—EpiPens. Now you can’t stop thinking about that scene from Pulp Fiction.

You’ll notice I didn’t say an NBC sitcom starring Barbara Billingsley. These parenting issues are not in black and white, or even Technicolor. They are in high definition and available on Hulu. The Beaver is now the Bieber. Mayberry has Wi-Fi. And father doesn’t always know best. Welcome to 2012.

It’s with this understanding that we review The New Playdate Playbook, a story written by Deborah Skolnik, Parenting’s senior editor and mom of two playdate-loving daughters. In the piece, one of the issues raised is that of a mom who’s uncomfortable letting her daughter have a sleepover at the home of a divorced father (Read as: Male with no female support). Here’s the advice given by Tina Paone, Ph.D., a therapist, mother of three, and founder of Counseling Center at Heritage, in Pennsylvania: “Call and say 'I'm sorry, and this is about me and not you, but I just don't feel comfortable with a man supervising an overnighter.’”

That’s right: If you can believe it, there are moms out there who are uncomfortable letting their daughters sleep over at a single dad’s house. In sharing this advice, we incurred a barrage of attacks. The story was called obtuse, useless, prejudice, guilty of “chicken coop hysteria.” Deborah was called a terrible mother.

Personally, I don’t believe a sleepover at a single dad’s home is worth fretting over, but this isn’t about me. Our magazine has given voice to parents who don’t vaccinate, who let their kids play violent video games, who believe the BPA in baby bottles causes ADD and ADHD, who don’t discipline, who co-sleep, who circumcise, who don’t circumcise, who breastfeed, who won’t breastfeed. We offer—and continue to offer—a platform for all sides. 

Some believe our playdate story has an anti-father agenda. Some believe it subconsciously labels fathers as predators and pedophiles, a gross leap that comes off as post-Sandusky hysteria. synopsized our "unremarkable story" as follows: “Apparently divorced dads are all pedophiles.” That’s a rather righteous stance on predatory behavior from a website owned by Gawker, home of Gawker Stalker, a forum that posts the up-to-the-minute whereabouts and movements of celebrities. Perhaps the media conglomerate that recently reported “Lauren Hutton looked dumpy in the line at Whole Foods” should keep its commentary on predatory behavior to itself.

The 21st century parenting universe is vast. And as the message boards and comment fields on prove, it’s full of vastly different opinions. If would be easy if the only issue during a playdate or sleepover was a wet sleeping bag or a skinned knee. But that’s not the case any more. Gay parents, single dads, divorce, and violent video games are all part of the conversation. They are woven into the fabric of the modern American family. But for some, what’s different is what’s unfamiliar. And what's unfamiliar is what's unsettling. Ever made a difficult, maybe even irrational, decision based on the unknown? Another way to ask that question is: Ever been a parent?

So let's face it: There are parents out there that think girl-only sleepovers are the domain of mothers. Well guess what: I’m a father. I’m the executive editor of Parenting. I’ve written books about parenting. I given lectures about parenting from podiums made from the finest wood. I've handled rotavirus, stitches, concerned child psychologists, screaming on transcontinental flights, and calling my son a girl and making him cry. But five tween girls texting and braiding and gossiping and squealing and (let’s be honest, not) sleeping might be beyond my skill set.