Is it possible to get a teenager to go to bed?

A question for the ages.

The above is an illustration from the teenage diary of Mary Browne (1807-1833), drawn on a family trip to France.

Dear Emily:

Here’s a question for you: Is it possible and/or advisable to get a teenager to go to bed? How about if they’re much happier and productive if they get enough sleep? It seems like some people tell their teens to go to bed and it works. How do they do that?

Don’t use my name.

Dear Don’t Use My Name,

Parents who can get teenagers to go to bed own guns, or else they have established— long ago and slowly—an understanding in their family that any rules or requests are based not on frustration, transference issues, or hunger for power, but rather on science and the parents’ consistent focus on the teen’s best interests.

Or, they have so expertly wielded their power over money, screens, toys, permission to go out, food, privacy, and other household currencies that it’s just not worth it to the teens to try to buck the parent-controlled economy.

But why DO you care so much what time they go to bed? You say that they are “happier” and more “productive” when they are well rested, but what if cheerfulness and productivity are not their principal aims? What if they want to dive deep into a game, or they’re building a time machine? What if they are into thinking about sex as much as possible, or living in a book-series fantasy world where she-wolves battle hot vampires for control of the planet? What if they want to see how long they can go without washing themselves or pulling a comb through their hair? What if they just want to record a transcendent pop album?

In our house, we are letting things get wild, re bedtimes. (Marshall and Mary binge watched an entire season of The Mandalorian the other night, while I got REM sleep and released toxins.)

But if I had more kids, or older kids, I think I might propose a scientific study. Do you dare?

The Bedtime Study

This is a four-week study. Subjects/participants may include minors only, or both the minors and the adults in the household. All subjects/participants must sign an agreement at the outset of the study promising that they will follow the guidelines closely and that they will keep their journals up to date daily.

Week 1: Bedlam

Bedtime: This week your bedtime may be anytime you want it to be, including no bedtime at all—staying up through the night is permissible.

Tasks: All chores are optional, although no member of the household may take on any other member’s assigned chores. If one teen is usually responsible for taking out the trash, and he/she decides not to take out the trash, the trash will pile up inside and may start to stink or attract pests. If the parent usually responsible for making meals decided not to make meals, no other person may make a meal. For food, everyone would in this instance be required to forage for themselves, without actually cooking or assembling anything good enough to be considered dinner. (The only exception to the task rule is the care of household pets.) NO CAJOLING OR SCOLDING OR COMPLAINING OF ANY KIND WILL BE ALLOWED.

School/work: Totally up to you. Studying, completing homework, preparing for classes, teaching, filing paperwork, attending meetings, making calls, sending emails, earning money, and so forth are all optional. NO CAJOLING OR SCOLDING OR COMPLAINING OF ANY KIND WILL BE ALLOWED.

Journal: At the end of each day, each subject/participant must answer the following questions in their journal:

1. Describe your energy levels today. List three things you did today that you feel were worthwhile and why.

2. List the things you did today that made home life better for any of the other members of your household.

3. Describe how you feel emotionally today.

4. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being abysmal and 10 being heavenly, how would you rate your day today?

5. What did you create today? What did you learn?

6. What plans do you have for your day tomorrow?

7. On the last day of the week, write a paragraph describing the week to yourself in whatever terms you choose, for posterity.

Week 2: Reasonable Family Consensus*

Bedtime: Whatever times have been decided upon at the Family Meeting.

Tasks: Whatever has been decided at the Family Meeting.

School/work: Whatever has been agreed upon at the Family Meeting.

  1. Journal: Same as Week 1.

*If anyone fails to live up to the family agreements this week, the week must be repeated.

Week 3: The von Trapp Family

Bedtime: Based on sleep researchers’ findings on optimal sleep times for humans of different ages, any 13-year-olds (and children as young as 10) in the household will go to bed by 9:00 p.m. and get out of bed and start the day no later that 7 the next morning. For bedtimes for older teens, refer to this chart, keeping in mind that everyone in the household needs to be up and at ‘em by 8 a.m. at the latest, but preferably earlier (adjusting bedtimes accordingly).

Tasks: Every individual in the household is responsible for making their bed first thing upon getting out of it in the morning, washing their own dishes, preparing their own fair share of family meals for the week (in a family of 4, each person makes one-forth of the meals), straightening and sweeping their own room daily, doing one load of laundry to completion, taking out the trash assigned to, and thoroughly cleaning one room not their bedroom.

Exercise: Each member of the family, barring medical conditions that make this dangerous, must do 20 minutes of very rigorous exercise daily, at a minimum. For example: 10 rounds of the following: 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups, 20 squats, 100 meter sprint.

School/work: Must be completed, shown to parents, and then submitted by the time it is due, according to the teacher/supervisor/contract.

Journal: Same as Week 1.

Week 4: Bribes, Trickery, Threats, Intermittent Negotiation, Despair or Possibly … New Understanding

Interestingly, in Week 4 subjects/participants will return to pre-study mode, but with the addition of journal keeping. In addition to the standard writing prompts and questions you’ve been answering each week, add a section where you write about what you miss from previous weeks.

Family meeting: On the last day of Week 4 of the study, meet again as a family and decide whether to return to Bedlam, Reasonable Family Consensus (which you may revise, based on your new findings), or The von Trapp Family.

If there is not a clear winner among the three choices, just get ready to make the teens’ lives miserable for the foreseeable future. They must get their sleep and they have to do what you say, including getting good grades and bathing and doing their chores, as long as they live under your roof. You’re not running a boardinghouse for miscreants. I mean, please.

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