Generation Zzzzz

Late on a recent Saturday morning, I was working away in my home office when my teen-aged son appeared in the doorway, fresh from bed, enjoying a langorous stretch-and-yawn.

"That," he said, "was possibly the best 13 hours of sleep I've ever had."

I was so jealous, I wanted to pinch him.

Thirteen hours! Are you kidding me? The only way I could sleep for 13 hours straight would be under the influence of a) a powerful sedative or b) the flu.

Not that I wouldn't like to sleep 13 hours in a row. Nothing would make me happier. But there's no way I could do it, not at my age.

The Generation Gap largely can be explained in terms of our approaches to sleep.

When you're young, you never want to go to bed (you might miss something fun). Once you do turn in, you never want to get up again, and parents sometimes are forced to resort to extreme methods (such as ice water or firecrackers) to rouse you in time for school.

Once we get to be a "certain age," we can't wait to go to bed at night. We're so tired all the time, so frazzled and run down, bed seems like a reward for surviving another day. Once we're there, though, we often can't stay asleep. Our children, our worries, our bladders wake us up during the night. Next thing you know, it's morning and we don't feel well-rested at all.

We then must go wake our blissfully sleeping children, damn them, even though we're much too tired to break out the morning firecrackers.

Yes, I'm speaking in generalities here. I'm sure there are adults out there who can sleep all day long when they feel like it. They're probably people who have clear consciences and enormous bladders. Most of all, they're probably people who don't have children.

(For years, I secretly blamed our two sons for my poor sleep habits. I was doing fine, I always said, until those years when we had babies in the house. Then, two o'clock feedings and midnight colic disrupted my sleep, and I never fully recovered. Meanwhile, these boys can sleep around the clock, silently mocking my fatigue. It's just not fair.)

Now, science has found another reason for the disparity in sleep habits: Adulthood itself.

Adulthood begins when people stop sleeping in, according to researchers at the University of Munich, quoted in the magazine "Science." The researchers studied the sleeping patterns of more than 25,000 people in Switzerland and Germany, finding each person's "chronotype," which they identified as the midpoint between going to bed and waking up on days when the subjects could sleep as late as they wanted.

The researchers found that the average chronotype moved later and later during the teen years, then shifted back steadily, earlier and earlier, after the age of 20. The scientists were unable to determine whether this was a result of biology or "partying," but the pattern was indisputable.

So listen, parents: Don't resent your teens' ability to sleep all day. They don't mean to show off; they probably can't help it. When they reach adulthood, their patterns will change, and they, too, will be up at the crack of dawn, worrying and yawning and demanding urgent entry to the bathroom.

Until then, there are always firecrackers.

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