When I was 22 I worked as a production assistance for ESPN in Bristol. They would give us a game to watch and you’d carefully watch and log each play in the game, then you’d put together a highlight with the plays and the script for the anchor to air on TV. It was pretty cool gig actually, but there was one big catch: the hours were typically from 6PM to 3AM in the morning. That’s when all the games were, so that’s when they wanted you to be there. After work, we would all go hang out as a crew together in the early hours of the morning, wake up in the early afternoon and do it all over. But some rejected that vampiric restriction altogether.
The most prominent example was one of the video editors. He was built like a Greek colossus with a shock of blonde hair erupting from the top of his head. I’m pretty sure he had highlights. I asked him in passing what he was going to be doing after work and he told me he’d be hitting the gym for some weight training and cardio. Shocked at such a bizarre 4AM activity, I asked him how he would get up for work the next day, and he responded with the old cliche, “Eh, you sleep when you’re dead.” While it’s a shopworn expression, it stuck with me because of the sincerity witch which he adopted the mentality. When I thought of insomniacs, I pictured ragged, anemic looking slips of humanity that lived in the shadows eating bowls of Cheerios in bathrobes. Here was a high-functioning member of an elite culture of ESPN with otherwise outstanding health practices who simply didn’t sleep much.
It didn’t quite jive with the lessons I had been fed my life, nor the research that read the old aphorisms regarding it. Heck, even Benjamin Franklin, the father of American society said that “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” and he was a pretty smart guy. I had always seen that 7-9 hours was the recommended dose for a healthy adult. Anything under seven supposedly reduces your cognitive functioning level significantly. The less sleep you get, the lower your function, which can even be measured, at least according to some prominent sleep studies, based on your reading level based on comprehension. I had even read somewhere that not getting the recommended amount of sleep per night was the equivalent to your body of smoking a pack of cigarettes, although that was probably sensationalized.
But with every qualitative report of sleep health, there always seems to appear an addendum about the fact that “some people need more sleep than others.” It sounds like a harmless exception placed in the appendix of every report that makes everyone nod and say “Oh yes, that Sam I know rarely gets any sleep and he’s got straight A’s.” It seems harmless, until considered further… How is it that all of these quantitatively proved statistical truths simply don’t apply to a small segment of our population immune to the effects of sleep deprivation? There are only a few possible explanations that explain this apparent contradiction: first, and my favorite, we can technically train ourselves to function on a lower amount of sleep. Like a hybridized vehicle that charges its battery when it brakes, and uses gas only as a counterpart measure exponentially raising efficiency, we can train ourselves to function effectively with less of the metaphorical gas that sleep provides. These individuals have simply discovered how to do that and attribute it to a unique makeup allowing them to skip the Z’s. Second, and somewhat opposingly, these people are very foolish. They are running their engines ragged and getting by with superior intellectual and physical capability that were genetically granted but are squandering. If they actually slept enough, they’d be working for NASA instead of processing shot sheets in the basement of a production facility. Lastly, and the least plausible to me, that everyone is made up of fundamentally different compositions, thus some systems simply need less sleep than others. This conclusion essentially flies in the face of the assumption of the study: that all people have a unilateral relationship to sleep. You can’t suggest that’s the case only when it isn’t.
Sleep, like life, involves fundamental choice and fundamental restriction simultaneously. Like the breath we breathe, we elect to do it AND we have to at the same time. Thus, both avenues are equally important and valid in truth. But metaphysical consideration aside, what does this mean for teenage sleep health? It means that the choices they make about sleep are within their power universally, and they matter to everyone’s performance (regardless of your position on the paradox).
This observation is all well and good, but existential meanderings do little to convince teenage boys to stop playing Call of Duty and get horizontal at a reasonable hour. The key, as it seems with all things parenting, is to allow them to make the choice themselves without infringing on their autonomy, to invite them into a good decision by providing the space and opportunity to make it. Providing them good information on sleep health would be a good start, like maybe this or perhaps this. It’s critical not to be too forceful in any opinion, or at least retreat from stronger positions we’ve taken with them in order to allow them to make the right decision. And we, as parents, have to be prepared for the reality that the “right” answer for them might not be what we objectively expect. For example, perhaps we have eliminating video games before bedtime as a solution to getting to sleep easily, but the teen sees the solution as doing a meditation or listening to quiet music to wind down. The solution that works for them is what is going to work for everyone. Forcing them into making your choice for them or even enticing them to make that choice through a system of rewards is rarely a successful formula on a long term basis. Cajoling tends to cause tension for both parties, and subsequent resentment. Bargaining, well… let’s just say it’s a losing proposition to negotiate with terrorists.
Ultimately, teens, like everyone else, don’t actually want to destroy themselves and their own well-being in life. They just tend to slip into bad habits and make mistakes… just like you or I. What distinguishes adults from teenagers is that we’ve developed systems for ourselves to cope with underlying human foibles after reflecting on them over time. That is the skill that we want to encourage in our kids, as well, not just to “do what they’re told” or far worse, to sneak around behind our backs dishonestly to cope with overly restrictive parameters.
The truth is we don’t really have the answers on sleep. No one does. It’s an area of intense research in the scientific community for good reason, sleep health obviously has a huge impact on our daily existence. But while there are some widely accepted universals, such as the simple fact that we can’t survive without it, no one has such a sophisticated understanding of it that they should be ordering others around, parent or no. Like most things, we must all find our own way to well-being, albeit in a safe space that allows for reasonable failure when we’re young. For our ability to be high-functioning individuals who are “launched” into society ultimately comes down to our ability to master (or at least loosely manage) our own bodies and minds. As sleep powers the battery of life, we all must learn to plug it in for ourselves, regardless of its true composition.