Do Kids Need To Choose Between Sleep And Success?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

As a culture, we’re chronically sleep deprived. A third of adults report getting less than 6 hours on a regular basis; in one study, 34 percent of adults age 35 to 45 unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least once in the last month. There are a lot of factors that contribute to our fatigue, from an “always-on” work culture, to the temptations of Facebook and Netflix, to chronic health problems that interfere with getting restful sleep.

But for kids, especially teens, there are pretty much only two culprits: school start times and homework load. Younger kids can, generally speaking, go to bed early and wake up early. But the onset of puberty brings a shift in circadian rhythms, so a kid who previously could fall asleep by 8 or 9, now isn’t tired until 10 or 11. And teens still need 9 hours of sleep at night, which means a 6 a.m. wake-up is robbing them of much-needed shut-eye. When schools experiment with later start times, kids fare better: They eat breakfast, they’re alert in class, they get sick less often. If all schools pushed first period till 9, kids would net an extra hour of sleep.

The second sleep-thief is homework. For six years, I held a job as a tutor, both for the SATs and academic subjects. I was often hired as a homework helper—pretty much a companion animal for kids who were overwhelmed by the volume of work, had parents who couldn’t spare five hours out of their own evenings, and basically didn’t have the wherewithal to sit alone at a desk until midnight (like, um, most of us). As a rule, my students were exhausted and frequently ill. They worked with me or alone until late at night, caught a 6:45 a.m. bus, and played after-school sports until 6 or 7 p.m.. They ate dinner, I arrived, and the cycle began all over again.

I knew that I was a small part of a “sick system” when I overheard a mother telling her daughter that she’d have to give up her piano lessons to make time for our tutoring sessions.

As my son’s school career begins, I feel like I’m going to have to be vigilant about the encroachments this sick system inflicts on kids. (To be clear, I’m not blaming teachers. In many articles I’ve read on the “homework wars,” teachers shrug and say “we need to cover a certain amount of material in a year.” I respect that they have pressures that parents often don’t see.)

This is, at heart, a cultural problem. We Americans still have a puritanical streak—a vestigial belief that suffering is virtuous and that hard work is in and of itself a reward, rather than a means to an end. But the means has dwarfed the end; the tail is wagging the dog. We have kids completing reams of busy work (this writer, who did his daughter’s homework with her for a week, wrote that her goal was merely to memorize and regurgitate, rather than actually understand) that robs them of time for play, family activities, reading for pleasure and personal projects. Research shows that excessive homework has diminishing returns. It’s certainly making them tired and stressed out.

My friend Meg told me that her 16-year-old son has recently made a choice to scale back on homework in favor of sleep. He wakes at 6 to make it to school on time, and he chooses to go to bed at 10 rather than completing his assignments. And his grades have suffered because of it. Meg told me, “It does a number on his self-esteem to have lower grades than friends with whom he used to be on par. He’s beginning to think he’s dumb, when really he’s just too busy to do everything.”

Another friend, at the beginning of her son’s junior year, set a half-hour timer for each subject’s homework, and if it wasn’t done, too bad. And his grades have indeed dropped. They’re looking at colleges now, mindful that his not-stellar GPA will ding them from a lot of top schools. But she felt that his sleep, not to mention time with the family and his extracurricular commitments, took precedence over completing math problems Nos. 30–40. Not to mention that he’s still tired all the time, even with a strict 10 p.m. bedtime, because he’s skimping on the recommended nine hours of sleep.

This is a long way of saying that I don’t know what my plan is, exactly—I don’t want my son’s self-esteem to suffer due to bad grades, but I don’t want a sleep-deprived, stressed-out 6-year-old, either. (The homework overload can start by first grade.) For now, I’m going to take a page from my friends’ books and limit homework time even if schools don’t.

As for the early start time, I suppose he’s just going to have to adjust. I can only hope that by the time he’s in high school, later start times and less homework will be the norm. I mean, there’s enough research to support that. It’s almost like someone’s studying it.

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