Viewpoint

Exhausted superkids

Michelle Pindrik struggles to stay awake in honors physics at Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois in 2014.
Michelle Pindrik struggles to stay awake in honors physics at Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois in 2014. MCT

There are several passages in the new book “Overloaded and Underprepared” that fill me with sadness for American high school students – the most driven of whom are forever in search of a competitive edge. Some use Adderall. Some cheat.

But the part that got to me most was about sleep.

It’s a prerequisite for healthy growth. It’s a linchpin of sanity. Before adulthood, a baseline amount is fundamental.

But many teenagers today are so hyped up and stressed out that they’re getting only a fraction of the rest they need. The book mentions a high school in Silicon Valley that brought in outside sleep experts, created a sleep curriculum and trained students as “sleep ambassadors,” all to promote shut-eye.

Sleep ambassadors? Back when I was in high school in the 1980s, the most common sleep problem among my peers was getting too much of it and not waking up in time for class.

And that says everything about the way childhood has been transformed – at least among an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans – into an insanely programmed, status-obsessed and spirit-sapping race.

Take one more Advanced Placement class. Add another extracurricular. Apply to all eight Ivies. Lose a few winks but never a few steps.

“Overloaded and Underprepared,” published on Tuesday, was written by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles, all affiliated with a Stanford University-based group called Challenge Success, which urges more balanced learning environments.

The book joins an urgently needed body of literature that pushes back at helicopter parenting, exorbitant private tutoring, exhaustive standardized test preparation and the rest of it. This genre goes back at least a decade, but it has expanded with particular velocity as of late. “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, came out last month. “The Gift of Failure,” by Jessica Lahey, will be released in two weeks.

There’s a unifying theme: Enough is enough.

Sleep deprivation is just part of the craziness, but it’s a perfect shorthand for childhoods bereft of spontaneity, stripped of real play and haunted by the “pressure of perfection,” to quote the headline on a story by Julie Scelfo in The Times this week.

Scelfo wrote about six suicides in a 13-month period at the University of Pennsylvania; about the prevalence of anxiety and depression on college campuses; about star students’ inability to cope with minor setbacks, which are foreign and impermissible.

Those students almost certainly need more sleep. In a study in the medical journal Pediatrics this year, about 55 percent of American teenagers from the ages of 14 to 17 reported they were getting less than seven hours a night, though the National Sleep Foundation counsels 8 to 10.

Smartphones and tablets aggravate the problem keeping kids distracted long after lights out. But in communities where expectations run highest, the real culprit is panic: about acing the exam, burnishing the transcript, keeping up with peers.

I’ve talked with many parents in these places. They say they’d love to pull their children off such a fast track, but won’t others wind up ahead?

They might – if “ahead” is measured only by a spot in U-Penn’s freshman class.

But what about giving a kid wiggle room to find genuine passions, freedom to discover true independence, space to screw up and bounce back? Shouldn’t that matter as much?

“No one is arguing for a generation of mediocre or underachieving kids, but plenty of people have begun arguing for a redefinition of what it means to achieve,” wrote Jeffrey Kluger in Time magazine last week. He noted that “somewhere between the self-esteem building of going for the gold and the self-esteem crushing of the Ivy-or-die ethos, there has to be a place where kids can breathe.”

And where they can sleep, which is a gateway, not an impediment, to dreams.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

  Comments