This is “Survivor.” Author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Our 16-year-old daughter came out as bi. We’re totally supportive of this, but are unsure how to handle sleepovers. Do we continue to allow them with girls but not boys because that seems right even though it makes no logical sense? Expand the rules to include boys, because what difference does it make? Ban them altogether and win the Meanest Parents award? Help!
— Struggling with Sleepovers
“Totally supportive” is such a beautiful starting place, Struggling. If you cherish your daughter and respect her sexuality and she trusts you and your intentions, then you’ve all got it made in the shade, whatever pajama-party rules you end up deciding on.
And I don’t know that rules are the way to go here. Obviously, you don’t want to lock your daughter up in a tower like some chaste, bi Rapunzel waiting for her prince or princess to climb up her long braid or grab onto her buzz cut and rescue her. And certainly, you don’t want to punish her for coming out as bisexual by constraining her social life as a result. So can you talk to her completely transparently about sleepovers and what your concerns are? Or to reframe the question: Do you know what your concerns are?
For example, are you worried that your daughter won’t be able to tell the difference between friendship feelings and sexual feelings? Between a carpeted rumpus room and a gay bar? That she will, as a result, hit on all her guests while they’re painting each other’s toenails or playing Monopoly? I know you’re not, but that’s the homophobic stereotype — the same one that kept gay people out of the military for so long — that you’d just be minding your own business and before you know it, some gay somebody would be snaking a hand into your straight cargo shorts. (Dream on, hetero narcissists.)
However they identify, our kids are going to need to learn how to recognize their feelings and how to act on them in safe, happy, mutual ways. I feel like preventing opportunities to do that isn’t going to accomplish so much.
I crowdsourced my response by reading your question to my kids over beans and polenta. They loved the idea that you were inclined to be equal-opportunity about your strictness — they took it as a sign of respect for your daughter’s sexuality that you would extend your prohibitive instincts to include girls. But they didn’t think you should. “I mean,” my daughter said, “you could allow her to have sleepovers with just gay boys and straight girls and asexual kids, but what are you going to do? Ask everyone at the door?”
My son said, “It’s funny — the kind of parents who wouldn’t let you go to a co-ed sleepover in the first place? I feel like those aren’t the parents you’d come out to. So I’m sure these guys are cool, but I don’t even get the ‘no boys’ rule to begin with. They should just open it up so she can have sleepovers with everybody.” (I did have to remind him that boys are historically and actually more dangerous to girls than girls are — and then he was all sheepish, so I reminded him that I didn’t mean he was, what with his waist-length hair and gentle ways, and he nodded.)
Full disclosure: Our kids have always had sleepovers with both boys and girls since they’ve always been friends with both. I don’t imagine that they’re suddenly going to turn from Doritos and pingpong to cunnilingus, but if they did? Then I would trust that’s what the kids were ready for, regardless of anybody’s gender.
If sex is verboten wholesale for your daughter, for any reason, then make sure she knows why. That means making sure you know why first. That is what we should be doing as parents of teenagers anyway: trying to see the forest for the trees and trying not to get stuck in the shrubs and brambles and quicksand while we’ve got our eyes on the forest. Talking as openly and nimbly with our kids as we can, right? Not setting rules from on high, but muddling through together.