Regularly ask “why?”

In response to my post last week with data demonstrating why teens need to get more sleep, a parent replied with an earnest and totally reasonable question: How? As she pointed out, getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is a challenge with school, classes, activities, part-time jobs, etc. For a concerned parent who agrees that too many students are taking on too much, and who would very much like to encourage their kids to get more sleep, what exactly can be done about it?

There’s no easy answer here, but I recommend that families start start by asking “why?” when confronted with those choices that are preventing kids from getting more sleep.

Four AP classes—why? Activities filling up all their free time–why? And if the answers are, “Because kids need to get into ‘good’ colleges,” stick with, “Why?” There are hundreds of colleges in this country that will happily admit a kid with B’s, no AP classes, average test scores, and a part-time job after school as their only activity.

These are choices that kids and families make. And one of those choices is to opt in to—or out of—the race for a coveted spot at one of those colleges that denies most of their applicants.

We might say that this is the way it has to be, that kids need to get accepted to the most selective college they can lest they somehow be left behind their more competitive (and sleep-deprived) classmates. But if you meet that assumption with a powerful “why?” you’ll see that it doesn’t hold up. There’s no data to support that kids who go to highly selective colleges are happier or more successful in life. The namebranditus afflicting so many families is a powerful story they’ve been told and now tell themselves. But it’s not a fact-based objective on which you can predicate your high school career.

The truth is that some kids thrive on competition and achievement. They’re internally wired to finish at the top and feel a sense of exhilaration in the chase. But many more do not. I don’t prescribe one way to approach high school. But whatever approach you see—and even endorse—with your student, take the time to regularly ask, “Why?”