I cautiously open the door to my teenager’s room. The air inside is warm and smells like ripening human. Late morning light filters through the hastily drawn curtains to reveal a white, ruffled lump that is my snoozing daughter curled under her covers. The chances that she’ll be up before noon are zero to none. At least it’s Saturday.
Meanwhile, the rest of my house is abuzz. My husband flips French toast, the tween practices guitar, and the kindergartner builds a foam block house for her mini-Beanie Babies while waiting for her second breakfast. I’m baking muffins for the upcoming soccer game, jotting down a grocery list, and fiddling with the crossword.
Keeping busy is the default. It often feels like if you’re not doing something — or many somethings — you’re pretty much losing. Downtime is looked down upon and comes with a healthy dose of guilt for a lot of us, especially moms.
Not so for the bleary-eyed American Teenager.
After sleeping like the dead into the early afternoon, my teen might stumble out into the light for pancakes, last night’s leftover brownies, and a side of soy bacon. If you try to talk to her, all you’ll get in response are single-word grunts. Then it’s often back to bed to munch on microwave popcorn while watching a movie on her laptop.
Her room is a disaster (although she seems to know where everything is), and if I ask her to pick it up, walk the dog, or fold her laundry, she acts like I just asked her to scrub out the toilet with a toothbrush. Basically, the kid is downright lazy when it comes to participating in everyday family life.
It’s absolutely frustrating when I ask her to do something, and either she says yes, then doesn’t do it, pretends not to hear me, or outright complains that she just doesn’t want to. Um, hey kid, there’s a boatload of crap I don’t want to do but do anyway.
She has a good reason, though. My life is exhausting and stressful at times too, but the difference is I’m adult and she’s a run-ragged, 21st-century teenager. If I had to do what she does on a weekly basis, you can bet your ass I’d be slobbing around in my stinky pajamas avoiding all responsibilities beyond peeing and eating.
This kid sits seven hours a day in school, practices sports every afternoon for three hours — longer if she has a game — then does about two hours of homework every night. She somehow squeezes in a social life, mostly online but also in person. Throw in family time (however fleeting), and it’s no wonder the girl is fried by the weekend.
It’s not just grueling schedules that make teenagers so sloth-like when they’ve got free time. There’s actual science behind their laziness. According to Frances E. Jensen, MD, in her book, adolescents are naturally “owls,” which means their biological clocks give them a second wind right around an adult’s natural bedtime. That’s because melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep, is released about two hours later in teenagers than it is in adults.
I can’t tell you how many weeknights I hear my daughter putzing around her room while I’m drifting off to sleep. Unfortunately for her, she has to wake early to make it to school on time, so like most teens, she’s in a constant sleep deficit. According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, 76% of high school students in the United States get less than the recommended nine hours or more of sleep on weeknights.
It’s not only sleep deprivation that makes teens seem more like zombies than Energizer Bunnies. Scientists used to think the brain stopped growing around puberty. Now we know that children experience another brain growth spurt around the ages of 11 or 12 all the way through adolescence. This spurt produces an over-abundance of synapses, the points at which nerve impulses pass from one neuron to another.
Teens actually need more rest so their brains can develop, consolidate learning into memory, and prune away any unused synapses. If they don’t get enough sleep during the week, their bodies are going to compensate for it on the weekends. What looks like laziness is often honest-to-goodness exhaustion, and a solid dose of brain and body development.
Science doesn’t always get my daughter off the hook, but it does explain why she’s a cranky pain in the ass on occasion and reluctant to do much on the weekends. I come from a generation where busyness is valued and long to-do lists mean you’re important.
The older I get, the more I see how ridiculous and exhausting this thinking is. Who’s to say adults can’t benefit from more rest and chunks of downtime too? Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of books like Moneyball and The Big Short, says doing nothing might just be the key to success. How ironic that my daughter has this all figured out at the tender age of 14 while I’m still skittering around like an over-caffeinated kitten. I’m hoping an all-day sleep-in is in my near future.