Sleepovers are a right of passage in the western world. Despite their ubiquity, our childhood experiences sleeping at the homes of friends and their families are uniquely personal.
I asked adults of varying backgrounds to reflect on their childhood sleepovers, and while their experiences ranged from therapeutic to traumatic, two things came up again and again: limitless conversations on things that had never been discussed and unbridled creativity in activities and ideas. It turns out these conversations and the creative, unstructured context they’re created in can have a tremendous impact on how we grow and relate to others.
“Sleepovers are one of many activities that can help kids to individuate and live happy, independent lives as adults,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie M. Howard in an email from the Child Mind Institute. “Sleepovers can help build deeper friendships because they provide sustained, often unstructured time for kids to spend together. These experiences help kids to develop a richer friendship schema, which is a cognitive template for the way friendships work. Our schemas influence our view of friendships throughout our life.”
For Jo Mueller, a 29-year-old communications manager in Utica, frequent childhood sleepovers stemmed mostly from absentee parents. “My life was an eternal sleepover because I didn’t want to be home,” she said. “If I could find somewhere else to stay I would. It was an opportunity for escape.”
Many of her memories from this time fall back to the conversations these sleepovers would lead to with her best friend Jenny. “When we were together, we were in our own world, both actively escaping the trauma of our upbringing,” she said. “I think to a certain extent, our sleepovers were a safe haven to dream up a life for ourselves that existed well beyond the remote chaos.”
If you were a regular sleepover participant, it might also make you a more skilled conversationalist. Dr. Howard explained that in the adult-free oasis of a sleepover, young people are freer to engage in conversations about whatever comes to mind. This helps us learn more about the various ways our friends and other people think about things, and gives us much needed practice in “spontaneously responding to unplanned conversations.”
The other piece of this, the creativity of activity and conversation, can be traced to something called hypnagogia: the state between being asleep and awake. Visionaries from Edison to Dali relied on hypnagogia to fuel their best and most creative ideas. Andreas Mavromatis has probably written most comprehensively on the topic in his thesis-turned-book “The Nature and Function of the Hypnagogic State,” noting how this proximity to sleep makes us silly, illogical, and breaks down the barriers we put up when operating in “reality.”
Jo remembers lighting candles late at night, and whispering with her best friend until dawn about the kinds of apartments they would have as adults, full of light and flowers and cats. Debating what color they would paint the walls, furiously sketching their ideas out in notebooks.
“It was like we were already there, living that reality instead of the one we were actually in,” said Jo. “There was something about the night or predawn that lent itself more to fantasizing about the future. Like we were dreaming while awake and together. I think in the night when everyone else was asleep we were alone enough to step into another world – one that we actually wanted and created. It was exciting and fun, so we would stay up for hours.”
In 1934, German psychologist Ernst Kretschmer called this the “psychic twilight,” describing it as: “A state of lessened consciousness…the condition is one of ‘absent-mindedness’ with hypnoidal over-concentration on a single focus...divorced from the categories of space and time, and reason and will.”
These loose, extended, unstructured hang outs make up the standard sleepover. “Unstructured time allows kids the opportunity to be more creative, engage in interesting conversations of their own choosing, and delve deeper into shared interests, thoughts and ideas,” Dr. Howard explained. This is a crucial skill for adulthood. It teaches you to disagree, have a healthy debate, and accept someone with different beliefs. “Thinking about adulthood is one of many topics that might come up when kids are provided unstructured opportunities to talk about whatever is on their mind.”
Dr. Howard stressed that for many, our first forms of conversation come from mimicking the adults around us. She offers the example that if during a sleepover, two young kids were watching the Olympics: “one might comment that it’s so cool to perform in front of the whole world, and another might share this is their worst nightmare. This could turn to a conversation about enjoying performing and attention versus feeling anxious about messing up in front of others, and these kinds of conversations often lead to daydreaming about the future—aspirations and fears.”
She says similar conversations can play out about politics or other deeper concepts. “Without parents in the room to tell children who the family is voting for, kids can discuss who they would vote for if they were old enough.” These deep and uninhibited conversations help us stretch the legs of our identity and carve out our own space in the world.
The sleepovers I had with my best friend taught me the euphoria of fully and uninhibitedly sharing yourself with another person. We called our sleepovers “deep nights,” where we would talk endlessly and read the terrible teen girl poetry we wrote aloud. Secrets could be told, feelings shared. It was a way of feeling distinctly outside yourself and totally present at the same time.
Surrealism took notes from hypnagogia and it’s ability to connect seemingly disconnected concepts or ideas. Mavromatis notes that in this state, its spontaneity gives “the feeling of being free, autonomous, undetermined. It allows creative behaviour to be unbound and uncoupled from previous casual conditions.”
Sleepovers introduced me to some of my best friends and nurtured those relationships as we approached adulthood. They taught me how to be vulnerable, independent, to go with the flow or stick up for myself as necessary. Who are we without these conversations? Without the free “unstructured” and “undetermined” space to dream and share.
In the bubble of a sleepover we became our own autonomous unit. Even sleeping near each other increased a platonic intimacy. Being a child or a teenager can be immensely isolating. As I reached high school, sleepovers became a way to bridge that divide. As Mavromatis writes, on the edge of sleep, “vague similarity turns into sameness.”