What Would It Mean If We Took Our Kids Sleep Seriously?

May 22, 2016
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Last night, a school night, my 11 year old son’s baseball team played a game that lasted until 9:30. By the time we got home and he ate a quick bite and showered, it was 10:15 – an hour and a half later than a child who gets up at 6:30 should be going to bed. The opposing team had a forty minute drive home.

We love baseball. My son is having fun, getting exercise, and learning patience, sportsmanship, and dedication. But the truth is, the game also interferes with his sleep.

The same could be said for my other kids’ activities too. Band, volleyball, track, cheerleading, even AP courses have all deprived my children of necessary sleep.

This is normal. Children and teens all over the country are not getting enough sleep.

As parents, we want good things for our children. We want to them to be physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. To this end, we look for ways to help our kids grow and thrive. We help them with their homework and enroll them enrichment classes. We sign them up for dance and soccer and baseball. We encourage our teenagers to take AP and honors courses or to have after school jobs. And we praise them for hard-earned success and accomplishments – for pushing themselves.

Of course the irony is that all of these activities and responsibilities that we are giving our children and teens to enrich their lives, could be negatively impacting their health and jeopardizing their overall wellbeing.

Activities, responsibilities, and goals are good. They are important. But if we want our kids to live up to their full physical, academic, emotional, and social potential, sleep is crucial.

Parents know this. We develop bedtime routines and enforce strict rules about nighttime use of electronics and cell phones. But in reality, these measures simply aren’t these enough. To really ensure our kids get the sleep they need, we would have to start taking sleep seriously. That sounds like a good idea. Right?

Actually, it’s pretty radical. Because getting our kids enough sleep isn’t just about enforcing stricter bedtimes. It’s actually much more complicated than that. If parents and schools really took sleep seriously, it would change the way we raise and educate our children.

For schools, taking sleep seriously would mean assigning less homework. According to this CNN article, kids get up to three times more than the recommended amount of homework. This is not only counterproductive to learning, but the time spent on homework and the stress it causes are likely keeping many kids up past the recommended bedtime.

At the high school level, schools would have to change the way they run athletic and extracurricular programs. No more late-night ball games or play rehearsals. No more traveling to faraway towns to compete during the week.

Perhaps one of most significant things high schools could do to ensure their students get enough sleep would be to start the school day later, a practice recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and proven to boost academic performance.

If we took sleep seriously, high schools, colleges, and parents would also have to rethink what it means to be a high-achieving student. According to this article in the LA Times, a student should only take an AP class if she can still get nine hours of sleep after finishing her homework and extracurricular activities. By this logic, very few students would be able to take more than one or two AP classes per year. Others would have to opt out altogether.

Reorganizing high school sports, restricting the school day, rethinking homework, and changing how students prepare for college would all be major changes in American education, but considering that only 35% of US middle schoolers and a disturbing 9% of high school students are getting the optimal amount of sleep, these changes would all be worth making. After all how much longer can we continue continue to push our kids, while ignoring what amounts to no less than a public health crisis?

What changes would we see in adolescents we if didn’t keep them out late to play ball. What if we had laws that prevented them from working past 9:00 p.m.? What if they could start school an hour later, when they are awake and refreshed after a good night’s sleep? What if our expectations for high achieving students didn’t require them to choose studying over precious sleep?

Of course problem of sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect teens. We need to take measures to ensure younger children are getting enough sleep too. To do this, our culture would have to rethink kids’ activities. Are we willing to cut back on Little League and soccer games and to pass on evening lessons and activities? How different would American childhood look if every kid were at home by 7:00 and in bed at a reasonable hour? What if every school day started with a classroom full of children who were well-rested and alert?

Clearly making these sorts of changes would have a drastic effect on the lives of our children and teens. But not taking sleep seriously could have dire consequences.

 According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, even short-term sleep deprivation can… affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.

Sleep is a big deal. It’s as big a deal as nutrition or exercise. And it’s certainly as big a deal as sports or activities or grades. And yet, we don’t take sleep seriously. Doing so would require a major cultural and educational shift. It would take re-assessing what childhood and adolescence look like. It would be hard.

On the other hand, not taking sleep seriously might prove to much harder in the long run – especially on our kids.

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  1. Pingback: Are Youth Sports Right for Your Family?

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