Sleepover Kits Are About Making Content, Not Playing Pretend

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

A couple of years ago, I started seeing rentable sleepover “kits” on my Instagram Explore page. These kits typically include a “tent” for each invitee, which aren’t so much tents as visual gestures toward the idea of tents: symbols that are designed to clearly indicate tent in a photo. The tents are usually lined up in a tidy row, each with their own perfectly arranged accoutrements: a mattress and bedding and often a little tray adorned with an eye mask, or a stuffed animal, or a small glowing lantern. Sometimes there will be a personalized touch, like the guest’s name printed on a pillow, meant as a party favor. Then about a month ago, Kim Kardashian threw her daughter North a glamping-themed birthday party that took the trend to its limits, naturally.

These sleepover kits make me uneasy, as both a parent and a former child. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fake versions of real things; childhood is the time of make-believe, after all. But there’s a difference between childhood games and visual schemata meant to replace reality. Much of social life has become, for teens especially, a sequence of efforts to choreograph special moments, to participate in a matrix of experience based on consumption and image production. These kits are training wheels for that work.

Pedagogies of artifice

Like charcuterie boards, sleepover kits are a trend that emerged from the constraints of the act of image creation. The kits are not designed to encourage creativity or even play; they are designed to look cute. They are teaching tools in the pedagogy of artifice. They enable children to create charming scenes for the camera, to behave and react in ways appropriate for social media. Nowhere in the sleepover kit is there space for the instinct to take apart and rebuild, to create something of their own. The idea is to take your place in your individual tent, arrange the props just so, and strike a pose for Mom.

Everywhere we go in public, we see people trying to get the shot, either by themselves or assisted by an accomplice. These are private acts done in public view; we know to look away and give people their moment to work through what my friend and fellow parenting essayist Evie Ebert calls “a private struggle.” My husband equated this act to changing a baby’s diaper in public. “Watching someone while they’re doing it makes you not only rude but also creepy,” he said.

Children are not born knowing how to get the perfect shot, or even that they’re supposed to want to, but, boy, do they ever catch on fast. Have you ever met a 2-year-old who knows her angles? I have. When Mom’s hobby is content creation (and I’m justified in being gender-specific here, given the research on who is creating content), is it any surprise that she would teach her kids what she knows? (People don’t usually list “posting” as a hobby, but almost everyone puts in their 10,000 hours, so what else should we call it?) Expertise in creating an attractive scene and posting about it gives moms a certain kind of social power, and moms naturally wish to pass this power on to their kids. Enter the tools of pedagogy, disguised as special experiences for the kids.

I was chatting with Evie recently about this uneasy collision between the sleepover and image production. “There’s always that front-stage, backstage stuff with social media, but there’s something especially awkward about having a bad time in a beautiful place. Like having a bad time on vacation,” she said. “And I can’t stop thinking about the minor violence of the birthday girl deciding whose tents are arranged where.”

The social violence of the sleepover

I was not a huge fan of sleepovers as a kid, but I never turned down an invite, because as social occasions went, they had few rivals for sites where Things Happened. Secrets got told and rumors started. A sleepover invitation was a solid-gold token of in-group membership. Whoever was not at the sleepover got talked about — and sometimes, within the event itself, a new in-group and out-group sorting occurred, leaving some people clearly peripheral while others consolidated their status near the group’s white-hot center. The tent kits have enclosures that immediately create opportunities for social exclusion. “To line everyone up in this perfect row of tents where there’s this presumed equal closeness of everybody?” said Evie. “It’s just false. I just imagine being in my tent and hearing people obviously gathered in another tent and giggling.”

I wonder about the wisdom of adding an accelerant to children’s already combustible social gatherings. The knowledge that the party came in at around $100 a head (which is roughly what the rentals go for) ratchets up the humiliation for those of us (me, as a child, for example) who might spend the entire time counting down the minutes until we can go home.

I asked to be picked up from several sleepovers as a kid, and my chagrin lingers. Evie Irish-good-bye’d a sleepover when she was 8, walking home at 9:30 p.m. I’m not suggesting that children’s social lives should be determined by the needs of the most sensitive member of the group, but, also, think of the bed-wetters at these gatherings! At least when you’re in your own sleeping bag, you have a shot at suppressing the evidence.

Spending money to make yourself feel real

One thing I enjoyed about sleepovers was the intimate access they gave me to other peoples’ homes. I acquired interesting information like whether the parents slept late and what the breakfast situation was like. The print on the spare sheets. The way other houses smelled. The sounds the houses made in the middle of the night: fish tanks burbling, clocks ticking, pets snoring. My memories of sleepovers are all highly sensorial: smells, textures, the blunted sound of kids’ shrieks within the concrete walls of a finished basement.

What information would I have gathered from a sleepover in the fake tents? The smell of the cleaning products the rental company uses. The preference to have something ready-made rather than building it myself. The imperative to have things that are designed to go together and that look perpetually new. A vision of adulthood that requires you to spend hundreds of dollars to execute even the most basic task (having kids over for the night).

Here’s a species of adult that has always existed, but its numbers are growing: the kind that spends money so as to feel alive. I would love to read a book examining this species, one that goes deep into the psychology of learned helplessness, or of helplessness-as-status. This kind of adult takes profound satisfaction in lining up handymen to do small tasks around the house because it means that they are taking an active role in their lives, being “good homeowners.” They get their cars detailed when they are already spotless because it just smells so good right afterward. They change their patio furniture every two years because there’s a new model at Costco and then they talk about the new patio furniture.

Sure, you could just call people like this “boring,” but this kind of behavior used to be more exclusive to old people. Now my peers are doing it, and I’m pissed. I don’t want to talk about your new teak. Yes, I noticed your renovations, and I already know how much they cost, because that information is like microplastics: It’s already inside my body.

To this kind of adult, something is Happening when money is being spent: upgrades, smart choices, skilled allocation of resources. So it’s no surprise that raising children offers its own opportunities to spend themselves into three-dimensionality.

I wonder what it feels like to be a kid being raised by someone like this. Sleepovers are meant to be a time when kids can create their own world, kind of a crucible of kid-selfhood, for better or for worse. By treating the kids to a rented environment, the consumer-parent reaches into the world of the sleepover to mold and shape its contours. By constraining the party guests into this prefab world of cute, parents get the kids accustomed to surveillance and control. Gradually, they will learn not only to accept the way image production and consumer culture will structure their social worlds but to enjoy it, to think of it as a special treat just for them.

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Sleepover Kits Are About Making Content, Not Playing Pretend