Home Education Magazine
March-April 2004 - Articles and Columns
Homeschooled Teens Can Rest Easier - M.S. Beltran
It was Wednesday, mid-morning, when a friend called to shoot the breeze. During our conversation, I mentioned my thirteen-year-old daughter was still asleep.
"Oh, is she sick?"
"No, she's recently become a real late bird. She was up reading most of the night."
"Wow!" my friend marveled. "You're very lenient. I have my kids up for school by six o'clock."
It's not as if I wasn't used to such comments (though the note of condescension in her voice bugged me). My daughter's late rising has brought about a great deal of eye rolling and gaping disbelief from those who cannot imagine life outside the pre-set hours of institutionalized education, even though they are aware our child is not a part of that institution.
Is it stubborn adherence to tradition that keeps people holding the early bird in such high regard, while the night owl is chastised for being lazy? Being a notorious burner of midnight oil, it's hard for me to relate to any notions that I would be better off working days and sleeping nights. I've tried that and it did not make me a happy camper, which is why I would probably feel a bit like a hypocrite enforcing strict bedtime rules on my child.
I suppose the old "early to bed, early to rise" adage held true in days when people had to get a tremendous amount of work done when the daylight was available. But in this day and age, with electric lights and a host of other modern conveniences, we are no longer reliant upon the sun's appearance. Many families now have one or more parents working late shifts, with varying schedules; why in our sleep-deprived society should these parents sacrifice a couple of extra hours of much-needed rest in the morning to force children to rise at a more "proper" hour? Is it really beneficial to the child?
Not necessarily, science is showing. During puberty, the hormone melatonin that induces sleep is released by the body at a later hour than during the pre-pubescent years. Dr. William C. Dement writes in his book, The Promise of Sleep (Dell Publishing; ISBN: 0440509017): "...there is a change in the biological clock during the teen years. Adolescents tend to be classic night owls, staying up late and sleeping in late. This pattern is caused by a biologically driven shift in the circadian cycle that gives teens a troublesome kick in alertness at about the time the folks around them (younger and older) are getting sleepy and going to bed. Most teenagers will not start feeling sleepy for an hour or more after adults do." (p. 117) In essence, asking teens to go to bed and rise early as they once did naturally is asking them to fight their own changing biological clocks.
Teens getting sleepy at a later hour is not an indication that they need less sleep than younger children. Because of their young ages and the immense changes going on within their bodies, adolescents actually require an average of 9.5 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, few teens get the rest they need. Because many teens participate in after-school sports, extra-curricular activities or part-time jobs, many high-schoolers are required to attend classes earlier than younger children. Combine that with the pressures of homework and maintaining a social life, the average teen gets 6.5 hours or less sleep per night.
The prolonged effects of sleep deprivation can be detrimental to a child's health and ability to function. Inadequate sleep can impair critical thinking skills, creativity, judgment and reflexes, cause irritability, aggression and depression, and can interfere with the healing of even minor ailments like the common cold. Children who do not get adequate sleep on a regular basis are more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse, academic problems and car accidents, as well as are more likely to develop sleep disorders later in life. Some researchers believe that a great many students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are actually just sleep deprived (Adolescents and Sleep, The Mayo Clinic).
Some parents and educators are taking cues from these findings, attempting to convince districts to change school starting times. In Michigan, the Edina school district has pushed back classes more than an hour, from 7:15 A.M. to 8:30. Thus far, delaying classes even an hour seems to make a difference, as these schools have reported improved grades, higher attendance rates and fewer disciplinary problems as a result.
My daughter can pursue her studies on her own time. I don't see what difference it makes if she is starts her work at 8:00 A.M. or 8:00 P.M.; she is getting her full eight to ten hours sleep. It's not as if she's out late with a wild pack of teens wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. She spends the time in her room, churning out inspired stories, consuming pages of literature and practicing her guitar. So when the criticisms from non-homeschoolers about her late hours commence, I can't help but wonder, what is the big deal about bed time?
"Your child can never get proper rest if she goes to sleep so late," is a common argument I have faced. "Letting her get up so late will make her lazy," is a major concern of my mother, a chronic early-riser. "How will she ever learn to function in the real world--like go to early classes in college or be able to hold down a job--if she can't learn to wake up in the mornings?" has been reiterated to me on such numerous occasions I began to rethink my casual attitude toward bedtime.
When plagued with self-doubt, I turned to my fellow unschoolers to ask if they thought I was doing an injustice to my child by not setting stricter bedtime rules. Much to my surprise, I found myself in good company.
It seems standardized bed times, like standardized tests or lessons, are becoming a rather unpopular concept among homeschoolers. Flying in the face of traditional beliefs and trite cliches about rising early, I've found that many homeschooling parents feel as long as children are getting a healthy amount of sleep, and the child's sleeping patterns are not interfering with their lives or the family's daily activities, they are not concerned with setting strict bed times or winding alarm clocks to ring at the crack of dawn.
In fact, many parents find benefits in being able to set their own hours. Some feel that their teens keeping later hours allows them to spend more private time together, once younger children who are more demanding of their attention are asleep. One mother admitted that, because she and her husband work late, the whole family goes to bed in the wee hours of the morning and regularly rise around noon. The children keeping similar hours to the parents allowed for the family to spend more time together while still getting adequate rest, and there is less stress for all involved because of it.
Becky Leach, a homeschooling mother in Iowa, explains: "I was a little embarrassed when 'outsiders' discovered our habits--somehow it seemed 'naughty' not to conform, even though we were proud to be non-conformists in general. 'A diller, a dollar, a ten o'clock scholar,' kept running through my head, chastising me! But aside from external pressures to conform to the norm, what earthly difference did it make if my children didn't see a sunrise for a while? They became intimately acquainted with the stars, instead."
Training at an early age to meet with any pre-set hours seems inessential; we can be trained to go against our body's natural rhythms with minimal discomfort, but we cannot change those rhythms. Each individual has certain hours during the day that are peak performance hours, in which his or her body naturally operates at optimal performance levels. Sleep experts agree that, rather than wasting these precious hours, scheduling activities around one's most productive time of day is the most beneficial approach. To ignore the body's natural tendencies, as Dr. Dement puts it, is akin to a person "using his best shirts to scrub the floor." (The Promise Of Sleep, p. 423).
Luckily, in modern society, where life goes on around the clock, college students and adults have choices when deciding the hours they will keep. Opportunities to work or take classes early in the morning, late in the afternoon or into the night are available. One can decide for oneself what schedule one wishes to adapt, and weigh out the pros and cons if a class or job is worth altering one's sleeping preferences. It is not previous childhood bedtime training, but responsible steps in behavior modification that will allow a person to rise and sleep against one's natural tendencies.
In our home, we have opted not to make bedtime an issue. Rather, we focus on the issue of responsibility. Get a proper amount of rest, be considerate of others who might be sleeping earlier or later, keep up with chores and studies, and learn to set and keep appointments responsibly are the only requests I make pertaining to my teen's sleep habits.
Chalking up another unexpected benefit to homeschooling, we find our child makes good use of her most productive hours, while still getting a better night's rest than the majority of her peers. Despite the dismay of onlookers who cling blindly and obediently to traditional bedtime convictions, it works. Thanks to the freedom homeschooling affords, families can disregard outdated traditions and alter yet another aspect of their lives for their own benefit, so they can rest easier--at whatever time that may be.
© 2004 M.S. Beltran
March-April 2004 - Articles and Columns
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