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When Aden Bailey turned 13 this past March, she sent out an invitation describing the “who, what, where” details of her birthday sleepover, including the fact that the 18 young revelers would be eating pizza, watching “The Dark Knight”— and, oh, that the party would be coed.
Roughly two minutes after my daughter Sally brought her invitation home from school, my phone started ringing. One after another, mothers called to ask: “How do you feel about this? Is Sally going? Do you know the parents?” I told everyone that I didn’t know the Baileys yet, but I would make a trip to their Anneslie home and report back.
When I got there, Aden’s mom, Amrita Bailey, explained that they didn’t set out to have a coed sleepover. “It just so happens that some of Aden’s friends are boys, and we include them,” she told me, explaining that they’ve been hosting coed sleepovers since Aden was 7. “It just became a natural progression for us as Aden got older. And she continues to show us she is responsible and mature enough to host a coed sleepover party.”
Aden takes a big part in planning and structuring the evening’s events— painting, flashlight tag, a movie, snacks— as well as coordinating the sleeping arrangements. “What would those arrangements be?” I asked directly. The girls would sleep in a room in the basement and the guys would sleep in a room on the second floor, where the master bedroom is located.
So, why not a party where the boys leave and the girls stay— or vice versa? Since ‘tweens and teenagers are at an age and development where they embrace different experiences, some of them risky, wouldn’t it make sense not to dangle temptation in front of them? “Our sleepovers offer the kids an environment that is different, exciting, but also a safe environment and a safe way to have fun together and explore the girl/boy relationship,” says Bailey, who believes kids need exposure to many experiences with parental oversight so they know how to handle themselves when situations arise in later years. She also adds that Aden knows the kids she’s inviting very well— and she knows they’ll abide by the house rules. Amrita and Aden’s dad, Michael, are a very active presence at the parties, setting plenty of guidelines— the big one being that boys and girls don’t mix after “lights out.”
Now, when I was 13, I attended slumber parties all the time. The guests were all girls, of course, and our main topic of conversation, of course, was boys: who liked who, who was cute, who would kiss whom. We listened to records, ate popcorn, watched the Friday night movie on television and hooted as we tried to get the first girl who fell asleep to pee by sticking her hands in warm water, or worse, drew socks on her bare feet with a red Sharpie. If luck was on our side, the guy down the street, who was in my grade, would host a slumber party on the same night, and we’d all meet in the secluded spot of the Turners’ huge backyard, where we shuffled about in our respective groups until it was dark and time to go home. One time, we talked about playing truth-or-dare, but talk was as far as it got. Aden’s coed slumber party sounded very different from my own experiences, yet no less harmless. After talking with the Baileys, I told Sally she could go.
“Have you lost your mind?” asked Linda Hiss, a local mother of two daughters aged 11 and 14, when I told her of my decision. “Don’t you remember being 13 or 14? I knew a lot about sex at that age. And so did the boys.”
Face it, the connection between “coed slumber party” and “sex” looms large in the minds of many parents. “It’s interesting to me that the word ‘sex’ even comes up in a conversation about 12- and 13-year-old kids,” says Deborah Roffman, author of “Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense about Sex,” and a human sexuality educator at Park School. She describes kids in this age group as typically unready or uninterested physically, emotionally and socially for sexual behavior. “The assumption with a coed sleepover is that these 12- and 13-year-old kids are ready to take the boy/girl dynamic to a new level— not necessarily sex as a physical act, but a dynamic of sexuality and romance that most kids this age are not necessarily interested in, nor ready for. So I question the logic of this kind of party and ask if it is age appropriate.”
As it turns out, though coed sleepovers were new to me and to most folks I talked with, the trend has been around for nearly 10 years. Advice columnist Amy Dickinson, author of “Ask Amy,” called coed sleepovers “the new party concept sweeping the teen circuit” in a 2001 piece for Time.com. And a quick cruise on some popular Web sites such as parenthood.com pulls up lively debate about them. Many parents seem to feel that, along with easy access to technology, television, music videos and video games, coed sleepovers reinforce the societal bend toward precocious sexual behaviors. Helium.com ran a poll that asked, “Should teens have coed sleepovers?” At last count, out of 623 respondents, 470 said “no.”
“Coed sleepovers just open the door for being too liberal,” says Hiss. “It’s allowing an opportunity for something to happen, something kids this age are not ready to handle.” Baltimore resident Tim Friedman, father of a 13-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, agrees. “I wouldn’t allow either one of my kids to attend a coed sleepover,” he says. “Kids this age may think they are mature and ready to handle going to ‘first base,’ as we called it, or any kind of physical energy for that matter, but I don’t think they are. And I’m skeptical that a coed sleepover could encourage this behavior.”
But after all this thinking and exploring and debating, I kept coming back to some simple facts: Aden’s party sounded like fun. Sally and I like her, and we know and like many of the other kids invited— both boys and girls. Sally and I have had many mother/daughter conversations about all aspects of life: boys, drinking, smoking. We have agreed-upon rules about cell phones, texting and computer use. So without much fanfare, we discussed a few partygoing essentials— use common sense, keep alert to the surroundings, stick by friends— and that was that. Off she went to her first coed slumber party.
“How was it?” I asked Sally as she climbed into the car the next morning. “It was fun making pizza with the boys and playing tag outside,” she told me. And she said that, just as Amrita Bailey had told me, after lights out, the girls were in the basement and the boys were up on the third floor— and they weren’t allowed to open their doors. “It was clear we were supposed to stay put,” she says. The parents’ bedroom door, on the other hand, was wide open, and they remained alert to any infringements of the house rules.
“We texted the boys upstairs for a while— asking things like, ‘Who do you like down here’? ‘Who is the prettiest girl?’” Sally told me. “But then they got tired of it and stopped texting back. Then we called them, but they didn’t answer.”
After that, the girls chatted for a while until, one by one, they fell asleep.
Author Deborah Roffman, often called the “Sex Lady,” says, “The only way I see these sleepovers working is with highly structured supervision and enforced rules.” Here are some questions to ask to determine if that’s the case when your child is invited to a coed slumber party.
- Will both parents be there all night? (If one parent is a night-shift nurse, for example, are you comfortable with only one adult on guard?)
- How many kids are attending in all? Are all the girls spending the night? (You don’t want your daughter being the only other girl there.)
- Who is invited? (Get names.)
- Will older siblings be there? Are they also having a party? (This could be problematic.)
- What are the ground rules?
- Above all, what are the sleeping arrangements?