Why you should never agree to a sleepover
At every stage, children invent a personalised contraception method for their parents, as if they want to preserve their family position against sibling intruders. In the early years this means sleep deprivation and a cruel hormone cocktail that makes you weep at inanimate knitted toys on Cbeebies.
As they age, kids have to develop ever more complicated tactics. They are like the most successful viruses: they adapt. They evolve. Then they synthesize the most powerful parental nemesis yet.
The age of the sleepover dawns.
My nine-year-old wanted all his friends to stay. As a true Monty Python disciple, I haggled and got him down to four. His counter-demand was that it had to be camping. I said my tent could only sleep four, feeling smug. So when one of his friends dropped out I found myself mathematically outplayed. What a fool. However, a promise is a promise, so only too soon we were putting up my tent in the back garden (a job made all the more swift by keen assistance from his three-year-old sister).
At 4pm, the tent was looking taut and weather-proof, the barbecue was primed, the sun shone and I cradled a mug of tea in the last quiet five minutes I would have for eighteen hours. During those long, dark and increasingly desperate hours I learned many things.
Observation 1: noise
Noise is the result of a geometric not an arithmetic progression of the number of nine-year-olds. Let me put it this way, you might think N = b x nb, where N is total noise, b is the noise from one boy, and nb is the number of boys. If you habitually translate life into algebra, that is, in which case you need more gin.
You are a rookie. N = bnb, which means if you have four of them together, the decibels collectively produced start to melt unprotected eardrums. They have no volume control: the knob broke off when it got turned all the way to eleven. Someone talking? No problem, shout until they (a) give up, (b) confuse themselves by having to start again because of the interruption, or (c) you both develop an arms race scenario of ratcheting fortissimo until the other boy’s vocal chords disintegrate. Repeat.
Observation 2: food
Obviously nutrition didn’t get a look in when planning their meal. I may be middle class, but I’m not stupid. I’ll save my summer berry compote and drizzling honey for the grown ups. You’d think barbecued food was a safe bet: burgers, sausages, white rolls, chips and ketchup.
UH-UH buzzer from Family Fortunes Sucker.
Of the four young men around my barbecue, two didn’t like butter on their rolls, three didn’t like burgers, one didn’t like sausages, two didn’t like chips, one refused ketchup and one refused to sit down. I would draw you a Venn diagram but I think I’ve used up all your indulgence with the algebra. It would look like Victor Sylvester’s Viennese Waltz foot plan if he’d taken amphetamines.
Luckily, they were too busy arguing over who had what flavour of crisp to notice they weren’t eating enough to sustain a lethargic ant.
Observation 3: attention spans
There was a lot of running and chasing and yelling – I expected that. It was the whirlwind speed of activity change that made me refill my wine glass. Ten minutes of intense Pokemon inside, then general cage fighting on the trampoline, then two of them tried to watch You’ve Been Framed while the other two set my poor clavinova playing some funky Stevie Wonder-esque disco while they danced. Telly volume rose in response. Disco started to shake the walls. In the end I suggested taking the whole party into the tent so they could start their midnight feast at 8.30.
Observation 4: self-sufficiency
Thus began the five hour pilgrimage between tent and house. It was the night of the blue moon, so they scared themselves silly with werewolf stories. One asked if he could call his mum because he was scared of the dark. Another came in for some water; I gave him a bottle to take out. Three hours later he was back, saying he had lost the water and needed some more. Two came in crying because the other two had stolen their cuddly toys. One asked to call his mum because he’d forgotten his allergy tablets. Two entire packets of smuggled sweets disappeared. One inflatable bed went flat. There were at least twelve moonlit micturition expeditions.
By midnight, they had exhausted themselves. I apologised to my two elderly, traumatised cats and dragged myself upstairs, whimpering quietly. I did hear one more visit to the kitchen, but figured he knew his way around by then. The rest was silence.
Morning refreshed their ebullience. Four bowls of coco pops later (“Oh awesome! You have cool cereals!”) and the Pokemon trampolining yelling ricochet was in full swing again. One worried about losing a sock until I pointed out that perhaps the more pressing problem was that he wasn’t wearing trousers. The floor of the tent looked like a field at Glastonbury, without the discarded drug needles. I earned Stern Mum points (redeemable in thirty years’ time) by hassling them until their stuff was packed by the front door ready for them to be returned to the bosom of their families. My bosom had had enough.
The age of the sleepover had dawned alright. And by dawn, my god I had aged. Still, I’ve done it now and will never happen again. Until the three-year-old … don’t breed, my friends. Just don’t breed.