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Faith in Vermont: The Slumber Party

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Posted on December 2, 2014 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



When my oldest daughter turned seven last month, she requested a slumber party.

I’m not sure where the idea originated; she’d never attended a slumber party before. Sure, she’d spent nights at her grandparents’ houses. She and her sister once slept over at a friend’s house. We’ve had company come to stay, which often involves a few extra children sleeping on her bedroom floor. And because my daughter shares a bedroom with three younger sisters, one could argue that every night of her life is a slumber party.

But she wanted a birthday slumber party, with three friends from school. This is a girl who has a vision of her birthday party each year, down to the color scheme; she’s a force when it comes to celebrations.

As it happens, I have a fraught history with slumber parties. After a few innocuous sleepovers, when I was around my daughter’s age I attended what has become known as — in my mind — The Slumber Party From Hell. Not because it was a bad party, but because I behaved badly. I was not prone to bad behavior, but as an only child from a quiet, orderly household, I found slumber parties overly stimulating: More girls than parents! Whoo-hoo! At this particular party, I hoisted a large ceramic ball (a sculptural item belonging to my hostess’s parents) over my head in an attempt to impress my friends, which I inevitably dropped and broke. Then I laughed so hard that I wet my pants.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell my seven-year-old self not to worry: Just wait ’till college, I’d say. Property damage and urination happen at every party.

But at seven, I was mortified. I vowed never to attend a slumber party again. And I didn’t.

So, you’ll understand that when my daughter requested a slumber party, it was important to me that everyone have a wonderful experience. Because, like most parents, I’ve convinced myself that I can control that.

Based on my comprehensive Internet research, nobody has yet written a history of the slumber party. (Historians, take note!) This surprises me; I can’t believe there’s any area of our culture that remains unexamined, and I think the slumber party is an oddly fascinating concept. Who first thought that it would be a good idea to get a group of kids together in their pajamas for a sleepover?

My guess is that the slumber party is a 20th century phenomenon, probably corresponding to the rise of industry and increased mobility. After all, if you’re needed on the farm at 4 a.m., why would your parents allow you to sleep elsewhere? And if you’re going to live at home until you get married and move next door, why bother? But when culture changes and children are suddenly encouraged to leave home for college or work at age 18, then the slumber party starts looking like a pretty good idea. They’re often referred to as “rites of passage”: practice in the important life skills of sleeping away from home and developing relationships independent of one’s family.

What little evidence I’ve found supports my theory: The earliest dictionary definition of “pajama party” seems to have appeared around 1900-1910, with “slumber party” entering common usage between 1920-1925. Most definitions specify that slumber parties are typically attended by “teenagers,” or even more specifically, “girls,” who “dress in night clothes and spend the night eating and talking” (Collins English Dictionary, 2012). These definitions call to mind perhaps the best-known slumber party in popular culture, at least among members of my generation: the slumber party scene in the 1978 film “Grease,” in which the teenage “Pink Ladies” eat, drink, sing, pierce ears with unsterilized safety pins, and get a surprise visit from boys.

The teenage-girl slumber party seems quaint these days, because — much like Facebook and skinny jeans — it’s been appropriated by the too young and the too old. Everyone wants to be a teenage girl, it seems (except most teenage girls). Slumber parties have trickled down to girls as young as my daughter and her friends, and they’re also being touted as social events for adults. That’s right, this past July, the Museum of Natural History in New York City hosted a “Night at the Museum for Grown-Ups,” at which 150 guests age 21 and over paid $375 apiece for a three-course dinner, jazz, a flashlight tour and a spot for their sleeping bag under the museum’s 94-foot-long blue whale. The event was so popular that four subsequent adult sleepovers all sold out months in advance.

Experts don’t all condone the expanded age span of slumber parties. In an article in the Chicago Tribune (“Sleepovers a rite of passage for kids,” by Edward M. Eveld, Aug. 14, 2005), pediatric psychologist Martha Bernard recommends delaying sleepovers until age nine or 10, and ending them before high school. Her reasoning: children aged five or six are too young to handle sleeping away from home, and teenagers are too difficult to supervise (see “Grease”).

So, Martha Bernard wouldn’t have approved of the slumber party we hosted for four six-year-old girls. But it turned out to be a delightful event. All of the girls were well-behaved, they had fun, and they even went to sleep (late, yes, but they slept). My younger daughters are already requesting slumber parties of their own.

But the more I consider the purpose of slumber parties, the more I wonder whether they’re promoting skills I want my daughters to learn. We intend for our girls to pursue friendships that we’ve pre-approved, attend Vermont colleges, and move down the road after marrying people of our choosing.

Not really; I’d host another slumber party in a heartbeat. Just as soon as I hide all of our ceramic sculptures and safety pins.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch. 

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