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Sleep, Slowness, and Serendipity

15th November 2007
Sleeping

 

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.� - Mahatma Gandhi


“The difference between hope and despair is all too often a good night’s sleep.� - Al Gore

A feature in New York Magazine titled “Snooze or Loseâ€? is now surging from laptop to desktop to handheld devices among North American parents. Its gist is that American children aren’t getting enough sleep, and the sleep they’re getting isn’t producing rested young people, raring to plunge into intellectual pursuits and other worthy activities with the sort of zeal we’d all like to see.

And guess what else? Sleep-deprived children are cognitively impaired. They score lower on aptitude and achievement tests, have less impulse control, and they’re crabby. Really crabby.

“The surprise is how much sleep affects academic performance and emotional stability, as well as phenomena that we assumed to be entirely unrelated, such as the international obesity epidemic and the rise of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,� the author writes. “A few scientists theorize that sleep problems during formative years can cause permanent changes in a child’s brain structure: damage that one can’t sleep off like a hangover. It’s even possible that many of the hallmark characteristics of being a tweener and teen - moodiness, depression, and even binge eating - are actually symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation.�

This article, whose conclusions will be unsurprising to anyone who has ever been or raised a child, is in fact well worth reading for the research and interviews it comprises. Its recommendations are highly intelligent. Its anecdotes are excruciating, mainly because they incite a dreadful sort of self-recognition and self-loathing among earnest, well-intentioned parents, of whom I am one.

I feel quite safe in predicting that it will rank as one of the top e-mailed, blogged, and circulated articles of 2007, and it will almost certainly prompt numerous follow-up articles and chat shows, in which experts will bemoan the overscheduled and exhausted state of modern youth, parents will weep with helpless frustration, and various nattily attired children who either do or don’t need 10 hours of sleep every night will be asked to weigh in. And will anything change?

I wrote here months ago about the Occam’s razors of health care - such as the time I took a child with terrible stomach pains to the pediatrician and discovered that she had simply been through a growth spurt and was now too big for her trousers. Well, here’s another: Children need a lot of sleep - deep sleep and dreaming, and time to simply lie in bed thinking. They need long lazy evenings under the covers to imagine, ripen, and decant. To learn to hear the Still Small Voice Within. To enjoy what Charles Dickens so beautifully described as "a childhood of the mind."

Those who get too little sleep, for whatever reason, lose those precious margins that can mean all the difference between a minor setback and a catastrophic meltdown; their impulse controls are nil, and they cannot - simply cannot - create anything of great imagination, ingenuity, or daring.

Here I conjure my own darling offspring (no intellectual or artistic slouches), who have been known to discover forgotten homework assignments just before school, despite a family-wide system aimed at ensuring nothing goes undone. With some sound sleep behind them, this might be an “oops!� moment. Without it, picture a Mardi Gras marathon gone horribly awry.

Now, on the off-chance that New York magazine might decisively tip the balance of public opinion, and that parents, schools, and experts around the world might decide to pursue this subject further, I'd like to recommend an extraordinary piece of reading material that should fortify those among us who cannot bear one more school year in which our sleep-deprived children trudge through life with negative joie de vivre, let alone joie d’apprendre.

The book is titled In Praise of Slowness by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré.

I loved this book and could hardly put it down until - inspired by the author - I opted for the odd break so that I might savor it.

At the outset, Honoré confesses that he too is addicted to speed. Tearing through the Rome airport several years ago, he glimpsed a book titled One-Minute Bedtime Stories; lacking the time to slow down and look it over, he wondered how fast he could get it from Amazon.com. And then it hit him. Bedtime stories in one minute? In one minute? What the Hell was he thinking?

The finest chapter of the book relates to parenting and educating children. Here, Honoré takes specific aim at the now common practice, among aspiring parents, of "hothousing" young people into hugely high-pressured environments in which earnest grownups devote their lives (or the lives of people whom they employ) to shuffling their offspring from one activity to another. Endlessly. The result in many instances is predictable: solipsistic children, teens, and young adults, without enough time to sleep, to think, to commit spontaneous acts of kindness - as anyone who has worked with a large number of twenty-somethings already knows.

On a recent Sunday morning, having exhausted my own capacity for reading aloud, I switched on a DVD of Franco Zeffirelli's gorgeous 1968 film Romeo & Juliet with my own two little girls. We enabled the subtitles, and over the course of three hours, we watched the entire, unabridged production - the very film that inspired me at age 13 to study Shakespeare and Renaissance drama generally for roughly a decade - with many explanatory breaks. What serendipity that I ever happened across it on television at all, back in the days when no one had more than two hours of homework every night and well-educated mothers laughed at their peers who seemed to "have nothing better to do" than micromanaging their children's schoolwork, sports, music lessons, tutoring, and enrichment.

My daughters loved it. We've now branched out into other Shakespearean  DVDs, and my older daughter has written a killer play of her own. After many good nights of sleep, I might add, and many underscheduled afternoons with books and costumes.

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Article Information

Title: Sleep, Slowness, and Serendipity
Author: Sarah Jackson Han
Article Id: 4791
Date Added: 15th Nov 2007

Sources

New York magazine

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