Are your sweet kids starting to act like teenagers?
Does this sound familiar to you?
One winter I suddenly realized that the kids in our house were moody and broody. Every little request was a huge imposition on their time and space.
“Could you clear the table after supper?”
“But I have so much HOMEWORK to do.” <whine>
Everything was “impossible.”
Everything else was a crisis. (Yes, I realized you can’t have more than “everything,” but we’re talking about teenagers here.)
And every time we, their parents, suggested a method of attack for an assignment or project, breaking each task down into small parts, they wailed that it wouldn’t work.
They dissolved into tears. Often and copiously.
They snapped back at us and wouldn’t let us finish our sentences.
“So, what’s the problem?” I can hear other parents saying, “They’re teens. Welcome to the real world of teen parenting.”
And yes, indeed, our kids were 16, 14, and 12 when we reached a new crisis point. They were teens. But they hadn’t act like that two months before. In fact, they weren’t even acting like this one week earlier. (At least, not to this extent.)
Well, I can tell you one thing I realized that wasn’t happening.
For the last few years, we’ve really started worrying that our kids aren’t getting enough sleep. Their homework loads have been enormous, and even with moderate outside activities they were staying up late too often. Somewhere I read that teen behavior problems might have less to do with hormones and more to do with the sleep deficit teens often have.
I started doing research, and it doesn’t even look like all that homework is useful. When it comes right down to it, striving for the best grades in the class has little to do with lifetime success.
It’s the age of super-students pulling huge loads of AP classes, volunteer hours, and super-stars teens who start their own non-profit before they graduate from high school. But the rates of teen depression, eating disorders, and suicide are sky-rocketing. Universities are admitting students with more stellar resumes than ever before. Yet they’re struggling to employ enough mental health experts to support them through their college experience.
One of the problems seems to be that the kids are so busy doing all their homework and structured activities that they don’t get a chance to stop and think. They have no idea what they really enjoy doing, where their natural interests lay. They don’t have time to figure out who they really are, as a person.
So, with that in mind, lately we’ve tried encouraging our kids to take lesser academic loads.
I had no idea how hard it would be to say, “No, I don’t want you taking the hardest class.”
“It’s okay if your grade isn’t as high as it could be. You’re doing your best and there are only so many hours in a day.”
“You’re grade on the test tomorrow isn’t as important as you getting enough sleep tonight.”
“It’s a group project, you’ve done your part, and you’ve done your best to encourage your group members to do theirs. I don’t care what your grade is on this project, you need to go to sleep. It’s already midnight.”
“Yes, even if it counts for three test grades.”
Even as I wince inwardly as I say it.
Do I just have trouble with this because I’m a valedictorian/National Merit Scholar? Because it seems to not be just me, but everyone. At least from what my kids say.
“But everyone is staying up late working on homework.”
“But if I get a bad grade on this I’ll never recover.”
“But the kids in the regular classes don’t care at all, and nobody listens. I’m losing my mind in my regular class.”
“All the kids who care about school are taking all AP classes.”
“But if I don’t take every AP class, I won’t get a good class rank.”
I started actively trying to talk to school administrators and parents. The most common responses I got at first were things like:
“Well, some kids can handle it and other’s can’t.”
“My kid is the one who pushes to take the harder classes, not me.”
“I don’t know how late they stay up. I go to bed. I have to go to work in the morning.” (And their kids don’t have to get up for school in the morning? I really have to resist asking that question.)
And so we started trying to encourage our kids not to care so much, to find a stopping point and go to sleep. But it’s not a perfect solution. They usually still end up dissolving into tears, this time at the thought of leaving homework undone, and then we end up staying up anyway because they find it impossible to shirk off their homework. (And yes, I’m saying we, because one of us stays up with them just in case the computer goes crazy or something.)
And I start to really understand what I read somewhere that one father said, that the year he insisted his daughter get enough sleep was her most stressful year.
In Excellent Sheep, The Miseducation of the American Elite, William Deresiweicz says “[Some parents say] It doesn’t matter if [a student’s] parents aren’t crazy…because the environment is,” in a way that suggests that he has a hard time believing the environment is the problem, but he’s been told it time and time again. I would be one of those parents telling him that it is the environment.
Because it feels like we are swimming upstream against the establishment that is public education. Or any education for that matter. I know a private school where the homework is just as bad or worse.
How is it that we got to this point?
Why is it that AP classes think they need 2 hours of homework for every class period, even thought high school kids spend 35 hours per week at school for 6-7 classes and college kids only spend 12 hours a week on 4 classes? (Well, at least that’s what the full time college load used to be, 12 hours. I was crazy enough to usually take 17, but I didn’t know many other students doing that. Now I hear that’s the norm. And I’ve also heard to expect three hours of homework for every hour of college class.)
And why is it that high school drama productions require practicing until 10 pm every night the week before? Because let me tell you, their other teachers don’t suspend homework. But then that seems mild compared to sports where missing afternoon classes to travel to a competition and getting home late at night happens a couple of times every week. And this goes on for months.
This year we encouraged an even easier class load. But again last fall classes changed, we guessed incorrectly on how some classes would turn out, teachers for classes changed, and the homework and extra-curricular load got out of hand again.
The system is what it is. But as parents, it’s our job to figure out how to work within it. More importantly, it’s to guide our kids through it, to teach them how to work within it. Occasionally, we find out we’re failing at that job. Granted, things would go more smoothly if we hadn’t had some things happen like injuries that take lots of physical therapy and time to heal. (Let’s just say that one of my daughter’s found out that if you’re in the splits you can’t turn around if someone calls your name. Ouch!)
But the thing is, something always comes up. The next year, it was me going to physical therapy after breaking my wrist. There are always unplanned complications. You need to teach your kids to plan a schedule that can accommodate unplanned events.
So we’ll continue trying some of the easier classes in our school district with hit and miss success. We’re trying to let our kids take part in more of the non-academic activities so they can hopefully discover there’s more to life than academics. We’ll continue trying to get them to realize that you don’t have to be the best in everything, to participate at the highest level and commitment, to enjoy an activity. And we’ll keep trying.
We have started to notice a shift in our schools, other parents and the school starting to notice that the kids are tired. But things aren’t changing fast enough. Everyone’s scared of what might happen if they let up. Everyone’s scared of AP test scores and other scores. Everyone wants to be able to be proud of a super student who can do it all.
But if your teens have started acting like teens, consider that it may just be that they aren’t getting enough sleep.
What about you? Are your teens stressed? Or are they one of the super-students who is excelling at everything? And if they are, take an honest look at how many hours of sleep their getting a week. I think a lot of this could be helped if we’d all start being honest with each other, instead of trying to maintain Facebook happiness that “Everything is Awe-some….” (Cue Lego-movie music.)