The Sleepover and Adolescent Rites

It’s spring, the sky is smoky yellow and birds are fucking in midair. OK, that wasn’t how I was going to begin. It’s the season when feelings of change are palpable. This year I also feel unsettled. The bushfires have already begun and teenage-dom is contributing to my sense that everything is a little weird and a little undone.

O’s sister and I are travelling to Hong Kong and China next month. I’ll probably write about that in the future. But tonight I wanted to get down a few thoughts about adolescent rites and The Sleepover.

I’m beginning to realise that part of the reason O’s friends are flocking to our house at present is that we’re being more liberal than other parents in O’s age group. O is now 14 – his friends are mostly 13 and 14 – and it’s a tricky age for rule enforcing and boundary setting in any context.

Personally, I’m loving a sense of normality returning to our lives. I haven’t written much about how things were for our family in the last eighteen months but, suffice to say, a lot of our experience was frightening and isolating. I like having young teenagers lolling around on the couch or out the back, playing with the dogs or talking to me, and generally just being silly together. O is starting to thrive again, and that’s immeasurably important too.

Anyway, in the last couple of months we’ve let O hold several sleepovers – boys and girls. It was never something that O’s Dad or I were permitted at this age, so we did stop and talk about rules – but also why we felt OK with this. Here was our thinking:

  • It was important to us and to O that our house was a place where kids felt welcome and safe;
  • None of the kids in this particular circle are experimenting with alcohol or drugs at this point – at least in our presence. But this is part of our reasoning: we want these children in our presence as much as possible – and to have as good an idea as possible about what is going on;
  • Both our younger kids spent have spent much too much time in the last few years communicating online. We want them to build deep, strong friendships with their peers in person;
  • Sleepovers are lot of fun, if a bit exhausting. Our dogs (in particular) are thrilled.

There are definitely some well-documented problems with sleepovers. Firstly, there’s often not a lot of sleep and then there’s the thing where parents, in particular, worry that things will ‘get out of hand.’

I’ve found myself revisiting this second concern: basically, it seems that what adults worry about most is that teens will have sex. Specifically, teens will have sex in their house. When I was growing up teens were definitely not supposed to have sex at all. Of course, many did, but it was not talked about and not officially happening.

I still find it a bit hard to completely understand the origin of this fear of teenage sex. I am not sure if the biggest issue in the 1980s was that it was immoral to have sex or that someone might get impregnated. I tend to believe that it was more of the latter, although I have to recall that in my Catholic upbringing casual sex was always really, really wrong.

Madeleine bed

But O is transgender. He is also pre-puberty, which predictably enough is becoming more of an issue for him, week by week by week. O’s pretty sure he’s straight, which means he likes girls, and doesn’t believe this will change for him with pubertal hormones (although we’ve talked about how it might).

At the moment, this situation means that O is inevitably ‘friend-zoned’. He has some strong, genuine friendships with girls but they’re not particularly sexual with one another. I suspect some girls like him very much for the very fact that he’s ‘safe.’ O also has some longstanding male friendships and a lot of acquaintances through soccer and skateboarding. The need to socialise is strong in this one.

But here’s the thing – or part of it. Some of O’s friends are gay. Some are bisexual and some are straight. Some don’t know who they are attracted to as yet. So, with sleepovers, it seems ridiculous to insist on segregating genders. It might save some outdated notion of propriety but it won’t limit sexual behaviour. We could ban sleepovers, but then, inevitably, sexual experimenting will happen at the far ends of school property and in the bushes and the backs of cars, just like the ‘good old days.’

I feel a bit without a road map here and I think O’s Dad does too.  This is not how our parents or our friends’ parents handled this issue at all, but it’s safe to say that a lot of our own sex education was uninformed and just plain wrong.  It seems clear to me that the only sincere way forward – the only good way forward – is to ensure that all the kids in our care understand and practise mutual respect and enthusiastic consent.  I’m pretty confident that there are no young teens copulating under our roof at this point, but in the future this could well happen.  I’ve realised lately I’m far more concerned about O’s friendship group continuing to listen to one another and to treat each other with care and consideration than I am about anything else.


On that note, I should get to sleep.  I’m hoping we can all enjoy what is shaping up to be a long, hot summer – with added hormones.