"Do you own any guns?" asked the mom, whose teen daughters were about to sleep over. What? She thought I might be packing heat? Then she asked if any boys were going to be at the house. At first, I felt insulted. Then I realized she was just being careful, and I admired her due diligence. Here's what you, too, need to know — about everything from weaponry to curfews — before you say yes to your teens' requests to spend the night at someone else's home:
Check that the parents will be there. It sounds obvious, but do make sure. Mom and dad should pop their heads in sometimes, not just hole up upstairs. Earlier this year, a Massachusetts couple said they didn't know the teens at their home were drinking. They pleaded not guilty to violating their state's "social host responsibility" law, which says anyone who owns or controls a property can be charged if under-age kids consume alcohol there.
Be sure you're acquainted with the host family. "I wouldn't let my kids sleep over at anybody's house I didn't know," says psychologist Marcella Weiner, co-author of The Problem Is the Solution: A Jungian Approach to a Meaningful Life. Ask your teens, "'Who's Tommy? I don't know his parents,'" she says. (Find out about older siblings, too.)
Get to know the mother and father. Tell your child, "'I'd like to give a call to the parents since this is somebody I've never met,'" says psychologist Marsha Levy-Warren, author of The Adolescent Journey. "Kids generally don't like it when you call the parents. [But] this is where parent prerogative comes in."
See if the family uses a similar curfew. Many parents believe nothing good happens when kids are out after midnight. If you like to use a Cinderella-like "home by 12" rule, you may not want your teen staying at a house without one.
Talk about bedtime. "Are the kids allowed to stay up until all hours of the night?" says Dr. Michelle Barratt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Houston, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence — and the mother of five kids (ages 9, 16, 17, 19 and 22). Especially if your child has a sports game or band practice the next morning, you may not want her staying up until 4 a.m. Or perhaps you would feel OK if you simply knew the family planned to set a "quiet time." If the hosts are planning an up-all-night gathering, you may want to tell your teen to make it a "sleep under." That is, your child could stay until, say, 11 p.m., and then go home.
Opt out if you realize you feel uncomfortable. You may not get a good vibe at drop-off. Feel free to say, "'I just remembered there's something else I need to do, and I'm going to have to pick up Jenny at 10,'" says Barratt. (Pull your child aside so you can explain.)
Let your teen change her mind, too. Make sure she feels free to call you if she realizes she doesn't like the house, says Barratt. (Perhaps she spots a keg in the backyard or a marijuana plant on the windowsill.) Come up with a code phrase. For example, she can phone and say, "'I think I left my curling iron on,'" says Barratt. "You want to stay within the truth, but rescue your child."
Ask about activities. Will the kids be engaging in wholesome games, such as applying makeup without a mirror, singing karaoke, or scrapboarding? Or will they be playing "truth or dare"? It can be OK — or not. You don't want your daughter to wake up with striped hair because a friends' "dare" was to bleach the strands while she slumbered. You don't want the slumber party to feature a guest tattoo artist. To increase the likelihood that activities are safe and fun, you might give your child a housewarming gift such as the slumber party box of questions. (One Q: What would be the perfect theme song to your life?) Or encourage your daughter to make a similar game with her own customized queries.
Learn about other guests. Do you know and like them? If the sleepover is combined with a party, and you haven't met all the teen attendees, check that the parents plan to set a no-closed-door rule. Then mischief-makers can't sneak off to get into trouble.
Find out the sleeping arrangements. Even if the gathering is single gender, you may want to know if the teens will be sharing a bed. (On sites such as the Berkeley Parents Network, parents post alarmed messages about make-out sessions.)
Check if boys and girls will be there. Make sure the slumber party is not co-ed. If it is, and you feel comfortable with that arrangement, you might at least want to make sure the boys and girls sleep in separate rooms.
Share information with other moms and dads. "It's having coffee with another mother and having some degree of cordiality," says Levy-Warren. "I really encourage the parents to be in touch with one another. The stronger that parent population in terms of their involvement with each other, the safer the kids are."
Make sure it's a G-rated home. You want to make sure your teen isn't sleeping over at an R-rated house with guns and porn magazines lying around, or with violent or sexy movies showing on the TV. If the host family owns guns, they must be separate from the ammunition and locked up. In Britain, a boy hosting his 14-year-old best buddy on a sleepover picked up his dad's loaded shotgun after the two saw a man whose car had broken down and got scared. The teen, apparently by accident, fatally shot his friend.
Remember how you felt about slumber parties. Did you see them as a rite of passage and as a way to bond with your friends? If you loved them, you may want your children to experience them, too. But vet the family, the rules, and the activities before you let your teens pack their bags.
What kind of due diligence do you do before you let your kids sleep at someone's house for the first time?