The early years of helicopter parenting
Here is a Retro Junk article about sleepovers during the '90s, written by someone born toward the end of 1986. Judging from when he was a pre-teen, and the cultural references made, he's talking about roughly 1993 through 1997 or '98. The article has a reader rating of 198 (thumbs-up minus thumbs-down), whereas the typical article has a rating of under 10, and it's only been up for a couple months. So the picture he paints must be pretty representative.
Those were the years that helicopter parenting had already begun its ascent, when you could just pick up hints of the shifting norms in parenting, and hence the shift in the quality of childhood. I turned 13 in 1993, and so had very little contact with pre-teens during the mid and late '90s, but I do remember how quickly trick-or-treating disappeared, now that I was the candy-passer-outer and had a feel for how many showed up, whether the parents were there or not, and if so how they acted.
First parents would accompany their kids, but stay at the end of the driveway. Then fewer kids showed up at all, and in those cases with the parents moving farther up the driveway. In recent years they walk them all the way up to the porch with their hands fastened securely on the poor little kids' shoulders. Maybe this year they'll show up clinging to their mommy's skirt, or being carried by their doofus dad in one of those pamplemousse thingies.
Those years were also when the wienie patrol started to overhaul playgrounds across the country to make sure kids couldn't have fun on them, removing monkey bars, tire swings, teeter-totters, merry-go-rounds, and lowering the height of everything. And that was when toy guns had to look goofy and embarrassing enough that no boy would want to play with them, and they couldn't fire caps to make smoke with a loud bang.
But getting back to the sleepover article, you see the same gradual changes underway there too. Because sleepovers generally are invisible to the broader public, inside accounts like that are incredibly helpful to understand what was going on. Some of it sounds fairly familiar from my sleepovers during the mid-'80s through the early '90s -- ordering a pizza, staying up late, watching a violent movie, etc. Today sleepovers wouldn't even go that far toward letting kids enjoy an unusual level of freedom.
However, there are also signs that helicopter parents were already starting to push back against the children's demands to grow up and become independent. He describes bringing up the topic with his parents as something that required finesse and good negotiation skills, rather than just asking for it openly and the parents agreeing without argument, happy to know that their kid wasn't a total loser with no friends. There was also a fair amount of planning and coordination directly between the parents, almost like scheduling a play date.
Before that, I think if the parents did talk to each other, it was just about when to show up and whether or not they needed to bring a sleeping bag. From memory, though, it seems like it was mostly us kids who informed our parents of whose house we were sleeping over at, when we needed to show up, and what we'd be doing. The parents let us plan our social lives -- yep, even in elementary school -- and stayed out of our way. In fact, a good part of the time, we didn't plan the sleepover in advance at all -- we spontaneously felt it would be so awesome to have a sleepover that night, and ran begging to our parents, who'd usually go along with it unless there was Real Serious Business the next day. Like I said, they were already OK with the idea, and if anything chuckled at our childishly earnest pleas, as though we thought they might actually turn us down.
And finally there's the activities during the sleepover. From the mid-'90s onward, it looks like they stayed in the host's house the entire time, whereas I remember going out for awhile before it got real late. Usually it would have been something ordinary like playing out in the front yard or the street for awhile, maybe hanging out in the park during dusk (unsupervised of course). But not infrequently, the host parents would take us out to eat at Wendy's or wherever, to go skating at the roller rink, play a round of mini-golf, go bowling, or play video games in an arcade. As we got past 10 or 11 years old, they might also drop us off at the mall to run around exploring for awhile before heading home for the night.
Even within the house, the activities apparently shifted away from physically engaging to more passive things, primarily video games and watching TV or movies. Earlier this year I discussed how Millennials are getting nostalgic for not having much of a life as kids, since their wistfulness revolves almost entirely around video games played at home and TV shows. The sleepover article doesn't mention building forts out of boxes or couch cushions, sheets, and blankets, or pillow fights, or jumping around the bed like maniacs, or other physical ritualistic stuff like Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board (a game that only chicks played, but still something physical).
He made an effort to cover every aspect of the sleepover, from the planning before to the big pancake breakfast the day after, so I don't think he simply forgot to mention those things. You just don't get the impression that physical activity was part of the activities. He didn't mention listening to music either, which used to be standard, at least once you were 9 or 10. Good music animates your body, so that's pretty physical too. Overall the activities seem more adapted to a childhood of vegetation and hibernation.
By now it's even worse, with intensive scheduling of play dates, micro-managing what the kids will be eating, and generally treating them in more of a paternalistic, patron-client way than an encouraging, guest-host way. It's as if it were a mere case of overnight babysitting than throwing a party. But we can see the seeds of that already by the mid-1990s, maybe a little earlier, part of the cocooning trend during falling-crime times.