Put Those Kids to Bed!

by Tina Blue
August 4, 2002

I am appalled at how irresponsible today's parents are about their children's sleeping schedules.  I have already railed against the unhealthy eating habits they are training their kids to (see "Gummi Bears for Breakfast"), and the way they allow their children to badger adults for handouts and gifts (see "Gimmee! Gimmee! Gimmee!").  Now I am going to rant about the fact that so many kids--even preschool and grade school kids!--don't have any sort of established bedtime.

I frequently talk to children of all ages, and because I score state assessment essays from various parts of the country, I also read essays written by children from third grade on up to high school.  An awful lot of children talk and write about staying up until the wee hours of the morning playing video games and watching movies. (I have already ranted about the sorts of movies young kids are allowed to watch in "Children Don't Belong at R-Rated Movies.")

It's bad enough that they go to bed so late on weekends and over vacations, but many of them go to bed at 1:00 in the morning, or even later, on school nights.  No wonder they can't get up for school the next day, or that they doze off during class when they do go.

I wonder how many student absences are caused not by illness, but by staying up too late the night before.  And of course the same parents who allow their kids to stay up all night are willing to call them in for an excused absence the next day.  Obviously such parents don't consider school all that important, and their kids inevitably absorb that attitude from them.

You might wonder why I also consider it wrong to let kids stay up so late on weekends and during vacations.  Well, the fact is that people need not only sufficient sleep, but also regular sleep schedules.  Disrupted or irregular sleeping patterns take a toll on anyone, but especially on infants, children, and adolescents, whose growing bodies have much greater (and much more urgent) sleep needs than do adults.  (In "America's Sleep Deficit" and "Why Am I Always So Tired?" I discuss the dire consequences of inadequate and irregular sleep.)

A child who stays up very late on weekends is not going to easily readjust to a proper sleep schedule come Monday.  In fact, he is likely to be unable to get to sleep at all Sunday night, and on Monday morning he will be a zombie.  Even if his sleep schedule is more or less normalized by Tuesday or Wednesday, it will be disrupted again when the weekend rolls around. 

If a child is allowed to follow an unhealthy sleep schedule over vacations, that simply reinforces bad sleep habits and makes it harder to develop good sleep habits during the school year.

I teach college English.  One of the main problems I see my students struggling with is their inability to get control of their sleeping habits.  They can't get to sleep at night, so they stay up to all hours.  But then they can't get up until well past noon (many have trouble getting out of bed at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon!).  But having slept so late, they can't get to sleep the next night, either.

Of course, this also means they regularly cut class, since most of the courses they have to take meet earlier rather than later.  A lot of students crash and burn during their first year or two at college simply because they cannot manage their own sleep schedules.

Going to bed late and getting up late is a hard habit to break, and most of them began to develop that habit in grade school, often even earlier.  Most of the very young children I know (and having run a home daycare for 18 years, I have known quite a few) also follow this disastrous sleep pattern.

I understand that some parents let their young children stay up late just so they will have a chance to spend time with them after having been at work all day.  But that isn't usually the reason kids are allowed to stay up too late.  I know that isn't the reason, because most of the kids I know who are up late are in their own rooms playing video games and watching TV, not out in the front room interacting with their parents.

Besides the fact that our bodies evolved to be awake during daylight hours and asleep at night, so we inevitably function better under those conditions, it is also the case that most of the world operates on a daytime schedule.  A person who can't even get out of bed until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon (and I know many such people) is going to find it hard to get anything done.  He is also going to find it hard to get and keep a decent job, since skipping work to sleep in has even more immediately disastrous consequences than does cutting class after partying or playing video games all night.

Most of the adolescents and young adults I know who can't sleep at night and can't drag themselves out of bed in the morning are very distressed about of their out of control sleeping schedules.  They are having trouble with work, school, and relationships because of this problem, and many of them also suffer from health problems and depression.  The depression is partly caused by the other problems associated with their erratic sleeping patterns, but it's more than just that.  Insufficient and irregular sleep has been proven to be a causal factor in depression, as well as in a host of other physical and psychological conditions.

As a child I had a regular bedtime, as did most people in my generation.  But I started working night shifts when I was just 14 years old, and from that point on, I became a "night owl."  I would stay up very late after getting home from work, not to play, but to get all my homework done.  That pattern continued all through high school, college, and graduate school.  My entire life as a young adult was plagued by my inability to get up in the morning. 

In fact, I didn't learn to get up regularly in the morning until I was 29 years old.  That's when I had my first child.  My second child was born when I was 31, and for the next 18 years, I ran a home daycare, which meant that I had to be fully alert in order to take care of several infants and small children, most of whom arrived at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning.

But a lifetime's habits are hard to break.  I learned to get up in the morning, but I've never really broken the habit of staying up too late at night.  Of course, like many people, I stay up so late at least in part because it is the only time I am free to pursue my own interests without interference from the outside world.

Because I get up early, but still stay up late, I am chronically sleep-deprived--as are most people in our society, including young kids and adolescents.  The effects of this chronic sleep deprivation on my health have been fairly serious.  

And if you will take an honest look at our little kids, our teens, and our college students and other young adults, you will see that they too are suffering from irregular sleep schedules and chronic sleep deprivation.

Parents need to establish a reasonable bedtime for their kids and enforce it. Even on weekends and holidays, that bedtime should not be more than an hour later than their normal bedtime.

I am no fan of George W. Bush, and there are many things about him and his policies that I deplore.  But when one of my friends who also disapprove of him starts to rail against his habit of going to bed at 9:30 every night so he can be asleep by 10:00, I always defend him.

In this matter at least, I wish our entire society would look to President Bush as a role model.  He has the rare wisdom to respect the value of a good night's sleep.

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