After-hours The old-fashioned pajama party has gone coed, and parents of teen-agers are wondering if this a healthy trend, or trouble waiting to happen.

September 27, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Take 15 to 20 teen-agers, dress them in pajamas, T-shirts and shorts, let them watch videos in the basement family room till the wee hours, and then leave them alone to spend the night together.

Is this a parent's worst nightmare, or healthy social interaction?

Better choose wisely. As any mother or father of an adolescent can tell you, this is not a hypothetical situation.

The sleepover - once a purely same-sex, pre-adolescent affair featuring pizza, sleeping bags and staying up until dawn - has gone coed. In recent years, it has evolved into a high school ritual as certain as driver's ed and homecoming floats.

"It's like a chance to bond and to get to know people better," says Anna Olcerst, 17, a senior at McDonogh School. "It's about being friends, and nothing much usually happens. There's just less separation between the sexes."

Classmate Kim Brown has played host of and attended coed sleepovers with her parents' permission. Her friends often get together after a major event like a homecoming dance or a prom. They stay up late talking and then sleep on beds, floors and couches - sometimes all in the same room, but not always.

"When friends are close, they can hang out and not worry about pressures," says the 17-year-old Pasadena resident. "You know if a bunch of girls get together, it's worse - we're apt to stay up later."

Dr. William Brown, Kim's father, admits his initial reaction to the concept was a deep skepticism. He worried about sex, about whether there would be sufficient supervision, about what trouble they could get into.

But after talking to the parents of his daughter's friends and witnessing the events for himself, he has come to accept sleepovers as a positive experience - and even allowed Kim to have one at their home.

"They explained it to me, 'Dad, relax, it's not a big deal.' It turned out well," he says. "The kids were responsible. It isn't boys and girls pairing up. It's not hotel-motel time."

Barb Langridge, an Ellicott City parent, says she, too, voiced some initial doubts before becoming comfortable with sleepovers. It required a long talk about values and trust before she let her son, now a college junior, attend his first in high school.

Even now, she always checks details with the host's parents before deciding whether to allow her daughter, a sophomore at Centennial High School, to attend.

"When your kids are getting older, you have to look at the reality of what lies ahead," she says. "You can't expect them home every night for the rest of their life even if you want to. Maybe it's a transition."

Langridge and other parents believe the sleepovers may actually keep their children out of trouble. Keeping them indoors with a parent nearby means no chance they may be driving around intoxicated or looking to obtain drugs.

At private schools like McDonogh, the sleepovers are particularly important to students. They provide a chance for youngsters who live far apart to get together without worry of a curfew (in Maryland, the under-18 driver with a provisional license can't be out past midnight).

"In the beginning, I thought it was pretty weird," says John Yuhanick, a Guilford resident and father of two recent graduates Baltimore private schools, Bryn Mawr and St. Paul's. "These were boys and girls, and they get horny. But it wasn't about sex. They wanted a place to talk."

Some child-development specialists believe the coed sleep-overs may be an important social trend that sets the current generation apart. Parents may have difficulty understanding because platonic relationships between members of the opposite sex were so uncommon a generation ago.

"There's an overall desire to blur the boundaries that may be too rigid between the genders," says Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist and author. "I think there is subtle social commentary here. Each generation wants to find a way to differentiate themselves."

Dr. William S. Pollack, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, takes it one step further. He believes the sleepovers should be encouraged by parents as a way to promote more balanced relationships between boys and girls.

The author of "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood," a new book based on a study of 200 boys in the Northeast, Pollack believes that boys, particularly, could benefit from the trend.

Boys, he says, need to break out of society's "19th-century code of conduct," which promotes machismo, discourages overt expressions of emotion and causes them to always sexualize relations with girls.

"Very little surprises me about boys and girls, but hearing about coed sleepovers in my study was a very positive surprise," he says. "I'm glad parents could see the meaningfulness of it."

But not all parents, nor all experts on adolescents, are convinced sleepovers are such a great idea. What if parents don't supervise the event? What if kids have been drinking or doing drugs before they even arrive?

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