There’s a joke about being a Gen X kid versus being a Gen Z kid. The Gen Z kid is preparing to leave the house and his parents say, “Take your phone. Text me when you get there. Text me the names of who you’re with. Text me before you head home.” But when the Gen X kid left the house, what did his parents say? “Bye.”
It’s an accurate observation, but it leaves out a crucial detail. For it’s the Gen Xers, the generation that mostly just said “bye,” who are demanding their own kids offer up so much information and worrying so much, every time they leave the house. As such, it’s not a totally shocking thing that Gen Z is largely missing out on one of the pleasures that Gen Xers — and millennials such as Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing about the phenomenon at National Review — experienced when they said “bye”: the sleepover.
Granted, there’s probably some institutional knowledge at work here. We Gen Xers know more precisely what we got into once we left the house, whether to stay overnight elsewhere or merely for the majority of the day. There were the times we sneaked into the country club with its pool drained for the winter to skateboard. There were the small bonfires started just because we could. There were wanton acts of senseless property destruction.
Somehow, through our efforts to establish an Olympic sport and behave as unattended Boy Scouts out to earn a merit badge, we survived, which should make us pretty relaxed parents. Except we’re not. The “meh, whatever” generation is the most neurotic generation of parents ever.
Perhaps it’s that we remember all the moments we survived even though we probably shouldn’t have. Perhaps it’s that we’re having fewer kids — except our parents, the boomers, didn’t exactly breed at the replacement rate, and they weren’t on edge all the time. Whatever the reason, though, we’re really disrespecting our biggest claim to fame with our obsessive focus on excessive safety. We should be better than this.
The arguments against sleepovers are logical. In a fragmented age with weakened communities, it’s harder to know where we’re sending our kids. In an age in which broken homes are even more common than when we were growing up, there are myriad variables thrown into the mix that our own parents never had to worry about.
While I am a huge proponent of making babies, and not just in the figurative sense, remember what life was like before you started making them. The freedom, the tranquility, the relative absence of inexplicable destruction to the kitchen can all be yours again, if only for a night. All that’s required is that you bring in a gaggle of other children on some night in the future and let them inflict a multiplicative level of damage upon your kitchen while your friends enjoy getting out the pressure washer and not running the dishwasher for an evening.
It’s not just about selfishness, either. As Dougherty mentioned, there is value in kids learning how to behave and be polite in a foreign environment. There’s the meal the host family loves that your kid doesn’t but has to choke down enough of. There are the differing family dynamics and interactions to navigate. The sleepover is a reality check, at least initially.
For we Gen Xers often moved beyond that reality check and to a point when we had secondary families. You didn’t have to ask what you could eat because you knew. Your dad didn’t hesitate to insist your buddy and you go out in the backyard and split some firewood. Good fences may make good neighbors, but the real magic happens when you have those neighbors who can come through the gate and get some callouses alongside you.
Not that the modern sleepover features much manual labor, unless you count the half-hearted attempts at cleaning the kitchen after the kids get done baking cookies, but they’re still a blending of people together, a little slice of community in an age in which we’re all always on the go.
Our children are fragile. They are mortal. They deserve our fierce protection. They also deserve to be raised to become adults, capable of navigating society and, yes, risks. Maybe they’ll see a movie you wouldn’t have approved of in your home. Maybe you’re the parents who let them watch that movie.
Which isn’t to say anything goes. There’s a difference between getting to watch a highly problematic movie like, say, “The Goonies,” what with its language and ableism and cisnormative displays, and watching porn, but that’s another way in which the sleepover can be beneficial. It can force parents out of their own bubbles and into talking to other parents, finding ones with whom they feel comfortable entrusting their little demons for an evening.
We live in an age in which we look to big institutions to do big things to solve all our big problems, but as a saying that Gen X was inundated with growing up goes, “Think globally, act locally.”
Facile, yes, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. Mostly, it’s that regardless of the scale we’re thinking about, the solution to many of our problems starts at home and in our community. And we’re never going to revive our communities if we’re constantly afraid of one another. So let the kids go, or let them come over, but let them be kids together, even if you suffer a little excess destruction along the way.