Enough Sleep | September/October 2014

With the start of the new school year, routines are taking shape. Youngsters are assembling the complex puzzle in which homework, activities, sports, social life and family time compete for a limited number of hours in the day. Frequently it seems there’s not enough time to do it all, that something’s got to give. What often gives? Our children’s sleep.

Cutting corners when it comes to sleep is more hazardous to our kids’ welfare than most parents realize. We may be so accustomed to playing fast and loose with sleep — we often compromise our own as we go about our over-scheduled lives — that we’ve lost perspective on our children’s need for sleep.

What scientists have come to understand is that during sleep, the brain consolidates what’s been learned during waking hours, making that learning accessible later on. In other words, studying for tomorrow’s test is more effective when it’s followed by a good night’s sleep. It’s as though the sleep process stores new learning in a kind of mental hard drive, where that learning proves easier to recall when needed.

This isn’t just about book learning. Sufficient sleep has been found to improve focus and concentration, whether the task is academic, athletic, or the pleasures of a hobby or simple pastime. Sleep has been called “food for the brain,” providing a kind of essential fuel for optimal functioning in every way. It enables persistence and perseverance, making it easier to tackle a math worksheet, a tennis serve or a tricky interpersonal situation with a group of friends. Insufficient sleep has been associated with negative mood, inconsistent performance and productivity, and poor behavioral self-control.i

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following amounts of sleep for children and teens:ii

    1-3 years old = 12-14 hours of sleep
    3-5 years old = 11-13 hours of sleep
    5-12 years old = 10-11 hours of sleep
    12-18 years old = 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep

It’s easy to look away when our children sacrifice sleep for the activities we particularly value, like academics and athletics, especially knowing they’re apt to kick up a fuss if we dare declare “lights out.” But as a foundation of their overall welfare, adequate sleep is a battle worth taking on.

i National Institutes of Health, National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and Office of Prevention, Education, and Control. Working group report on problem sleepiness. August 1997.
ii Data from The National Sleep Foundation, at www.Sleepfoundation.org.

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Paying Attention l July/August 2014

A local summer camp recently asked its 6- and 7-year-olds to answer a simple question: name something you’d like your parents to start doing with you. Among the responses given by the children were: “Talk to me during dinner,” “Play more games with me,” and “Read me stories.” Responses like these remind us that many of our kids want more of our interest than we realize. In fact, many find themselves competing for our attention.

For lots of parents, work life consumes inordinate time and energy, aided by handheld devices that make work possible wherever we go. One estimate suggests that 10% of Americans are workaholics.1 The proportion is as high as 23% among doctors, lawyers and psychologists. 2 In a survey of Canadians, 38% of those with incomes over $80,000 described themselves as work addicted.3

Let’s be honest: children’s conversation isn’t always compelling. What engages us more? Often it’s some text or email, or checking a favorite website, or our Facebook newsfeed — frequently more interesting than stories of playground dramas or classroom lessons. Kids can no longer count on our undivided attention while we’re in the car, sitting around the meal table, or waiting in line at the grocery store. Walk through family restaurants and notice how many devices are resting on the table, within parents’ reach.

Children need our focused attention to know that they’re important to us, important simply for who they are regardless of their marks in school or skills on the soccer field. When they have to compete for our interest, their sense of self-worth can be easily undermined. What’s required of us is slowing down, paying attention, and accepting that being with the kids will often be less stimulating than when we’re engaged with our devices. (Same for the kids: putting away their devices may leave them under-stimulated … but available for connection with us.)

Let’s show our kids that when we’re with them, we want to be with them fully, a team of two, facing the world together with nothing coming between us.

1 Sussman, Steve, et al., “Prevalence of the Addictions.” Evaluation & the Health Professions. March 2011; 34(1): 3–56.

2 Doerfler, M.C. and P. P. Kammer. “Workaholism, Sex, and Sex Role Stereotyping Among Female Professionals.” (Sex Roles, Vol. 14, Nos. 9/10, 1986).

3 Kemeny, Anna. “Driven to Excel: A Portrait of Canada’s Workaholics.” (Canadian Social Trends, No. 64, Spring 2002).

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Whose Homework? l June 2014

For too many families, homework time has become the organizing element in the hours between 5 and 10 p.m., dictating when dinner is served, how parents spend their evening, what family activities can or cannot occur. Many parents are slaves to a steady stream of “Can you help me?” or “I don’t understand this” or “What am I supposed to do on this worksheet?”

A 2013 report of the National Center for Family Literacy found that 50 percent of surveyed parents struggle when it comes to helping their children with homework, often because they themselves don’t understand the material, or their child isn’t welcoming the assistance, or they simply can’t make the time amid everything else that demands their attention.1 For many parents, homework time is stressful all around.

But why should parents be stressed? Whose homework is it anyway — theirs or the children’s?

Reviewing three decades of research about American parents and their kids’ academic lives, one research team came to the conclusion that parental involvement in kids’ homework yields few benefits for children, and might even backfire.2 “Consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades,” the researchers found. “Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.”3 Once upon a time, teachers — not parents — reviewed children’s homework, meting out necessary consequences for shabby or incomplete effort. It worked well then and it can work well now, provided we step aside, stop “enabling,” and remind ourselves that some of life’s most important lessons are only learned through mistakes or failure.

What could parents be doing if they weren’t overly involved at homework time? How about Mom and Dad sharing a glass of wine and catching up on the events of their day — in other words, nurturing the marital relationship, upon which children’s sense of security absolutely depends. Or how about parents using that time to unwind after a long day — reading the paper, surfing the Web, taking a speed walk — recharging their batteries to be better available to the kids (or spouse) after the homework is done.

There’s not a lot of time for parents and children to be together during the school week; why squander it being the homework police?

1 http://www.familieslearning.org/public/uploads/press_releases/1388265133.4NBO.PR-Half-of-Parents-09-2013.pdf
2 Robinson, Keith and Angel L. Harris. The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2014.
3 Robinson, Keith and Angel L. Harris. “Parental Involvement Is Overrated.” New York Times, April 12, 2014.

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