Teens, sleep and the prefrontal cortex

What’s with teens and sleep?  My gosh.

At our house, it’s becoming something of a medical concern.  My 18 year-old daughter can sleep all night, all day, during school, after school, during dinner, and in the car.  (When I’m driving, not her. Although at this point who knows.)

My 14 year-old son is no better.  Once upon a time he was our little guy who ran out of his room at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning, eager to start his day of play.  But on the eve of his thirteenth birthday—at the stroke of midnight, I could swear it—all natural morning vigor was lost and the following day he slept until noon.  We thought he was dead. Then, to our disappointment, we realized he was just becoming a teenager.

Summer has brought it to a whole new level.  What used to be Saturday Sleeping has now become Every Day Sleeping, and I’m not afraid to tell you that something might be wrong with my children.

Look, I get it.  Their bodies are growing, their hormones are raging, and their prefrontal cortex functions like that of a toddler’s while their appetite skyrockets to that of a caveman’s.  (Forget the Neanderthal Man, why aren’t we studying the American Teen in biology?  Their developmental patterns are as mysterious and research subjects more abundant.)  These people are subhuman, I’m telling you.

And because they are subhuman, I’m willing to allow that they need sleep that exceeds the normal human range.  Instead of eight hours per night, the teenager needs ten. Twelve even. Okay, fine. It’s sweaty and smelly and obnoxious, but I’ll give it ‘em.

But here’s where I get confused:  how is that after sleeping, let’s say, from midnight to noon—a full twelve hours—they heave out of bed like the walking dead, flop into the shower, drag themselves to two hours (two hours—the injustice!) of church, then deem it necessary to come home and take a four hour nap.  Friends and fellow parents, I do not understand this.

A day boasts 24 hours.  If sixteen of those hours are spent sleeping, the American Teen/Neanderthal (Teenanderthal?) is left with eight hours in which to live their life.  Subtract four of those hours for eating, another two for makeup-ing (girls), flexing in front of the mirror (boys), trying on nine different outfits and examining their nose for whiteheads and you’re down to two skimpy hours remaining.  These are quickly swallowed up by Insta and Snapchat, leaving our beloved teenager exactly zero hours in the day for developing said prefrontal cortex—you know, that part of the brain that determines little things like personality development, decision making, and moderating social behavior.  I think you know where I’m going with this.  

So here’s my question:  why are we letting these cortex-less people drive at age sixteen and vote at age eighteen?  Instead of requiring proof of age for these privileges, I move that law requires proof of a fully developed prefrontal cortex.  Before a driver’s license or voter registration card is issued, a signed medical release and high-resolution scan of the Developed Cortex must be submitted.  The upside? You and I could sit back and watch our youth denied driving and voting. The downside? We’d have to keep chauffeuring their sorry non-cortexes around town and the Democrats would never win another election. It would come at a cost, but it might be worth it.  I’m just saying.

It’s not that my kids are bad people.  It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s not that their rooms smell like a garbage dump when I walk in at the premature hour of eleven o’clock in the morning to timidly nudge them and softly—oh so softly—whisper, “Honey?  I think it’s time you started waking up…” only to have them slump violently away from me, shove the covers over their head, and wail to the ceiling with the anger of the gods.  

Like gods, they are fierce and terrible.  And like any mortal, I fear for my life before them.  And so I step away from the bed in silence and tiptoe backwards out of the room, hoping they’ll stay asleep long enough to forget I dared entry into their domain.  Twelve o’clock…one o’clock…two o’clock…dream away, my darlings, dream away.  Please just don’t kill me.  



I picked up this book and couldn’t put it down, not because the plot is suspenseful (it’s not) or the pace exhilarating (it isn’t), but because when you find something clear and cool and lovely to drink, it’s hard to stop once you start.

Such is Gilead, the fictional autobiography of John Ames, an elderly pastor from the small remote town of Gilead, Iowa.  Facing his own mortality, Ames writes a series of letters to his only child, a young son, to be read when the child grows older and Ames is long gone.  In them, we get a peek into the pastor’s heart and mind—and what a heart and mind it is.  He does not offer his son easy answers to the hardest of life’s questions, but he is unafraid to ask them.  Even more than a reverence for God, his letters show a reverence for God’s creations:  nature, people, the world and our place in it.  His awe at the ordinary is what gives this book its flavor, and what gives me my favorite passages.  Like this one:

That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church.  There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t.  It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth.  I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.  I wish I had paid more attention to it.  My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really.  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Those last two sentences.  Wow.

Here’s an even better one:

I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine.  It still amazes me every time I think of it.  I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.  You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind.  If only I had the words to tell you.

Um.  Yes.

If you read no other fiction this year, please pick up Gilead.  But only if you want an illuminating, expansive view of the the lives we live and the world in which we live them.  And an honest, unflinching look at faith’s limitations and potential.  And gorgeous prose that gives voice to the workings of your innermost sacred heart.  And truth and beauty and wisdom.  And…well, you get the point.  Five stars for this one.





Megan quits carbs.

Yesterday, my sixteen year-old daughter announced that she was giving up carbs.

“Why?” I asked.  

“Because,” she said, “I’m too dependant on tortilla strips.”  That’s strips, not chips–as in the five pound bag of Tortilla Strips from Costco that she plows through every day and a half.  

“Yes, you are.”

“I’m giving up all carbs–all bread, cereal, chips–for the next three weeks.  I’m doing it, Mom!”  

I was impressed, and surprised.  Three weeks doesn’t sound like much to some people, but this is my girl who was born with a bag of white flour in one hand and a bag of white sugar in the other.  And now she was giving up both?

“Instead of quitting carbs altogether, why don’t you just cut back?”

“Because, if I cut back I won’t do it.  Cutting back isn’t tangible.  I have to cut them out completely so I know that I’m not eating them.”

I could see her logic, but wasn’t sure she understood the full implications of a tortilla-strip-free existence.  It could get dire. I decided to help her out.

“Tell you what.  If you give up carbs for three weeks, I’ll give up sugar for three weeks.”


“Yeah, we’ll make it a challenge.”

“Okay!  And if it’s a challenge, we’ll need a prize.  Let’s see, what should it be…” I could have mouthed along with her what came next.

“I know!  The loser has to pay for the winner to get a her nails done!”  Getting Nails Done is a big thing with Meg. (Expensive + Unnecessary = Awesome.)

We agreed that we wouldn’t go crazy and read labels to avoid anything with a few carbs or grams of sugar in it, but rather that Meg would avoid basic carb items like bread and chips (strips) and I would avoid table sugar and desserts.  

“Perfect!”  I said. “But what if we both win?”

“If we both win…”–the pause was short–”then Dad has to pay for us both to get our nails done–pedicures too!”  I called Derrick and told him about our pact and all he said was, “It doesn’t sound like a very good deal for me.”  (He forgot that nobody asked for his opinion.) And just like that, it was Game On.

We sailed through the next eight hours–no carbs! no sugar!–then sat down to a healthy dinner of grilled chicken and veggies to end Day One of the New Healthy Us.  After we finished, Meg asked if there was any more chicken left.

“Shoot, there’s not.  Did you not get enough to eat?  We could make more.” With her newfound discipline, I needed to be sure the little health nut was eating enough.  She waved her fork and shook her head.

“Nah, it’s okay.  I’m gonna have some ice cream later.”  I stared at her.

“What?”  she asked.

“Ice cream?  What do you mean, you’re gonna have ice cream?”

“We have Mudslide in the freezer.”  She shrugged and looked at me quizzically.  What do you mean what do I mean?

“Meg, you can’t have ice cream.  You’re quitting carbs.”

“So?  Ice cream isn’t a carb.”

“Are you kidding me?  Ice cream is full of carbs!”

“No it’s not, it’s full of sugar.  I never said I was giving up sugar–that’s what you’re giving up.  So I can have ice cream…but you can’t.”  She said this last part gently, but it was pure malice.  She knew that Tillamook Mudslide was my favorite flavor, among all ice cream flavors, of all time anywhere in the history of ever.  She knew that Tillamook Mudslide was the ice cream I craved and dreamt about and fought for.  And she also knew that, after our first warm and sunny Saturday in ages, nothing sounded better at the end of it than a big fat bowl of Tillamook Mudslide. Eating it was practically why sunsets were invented.   

“Come on, Meg.  You know you can’t have ice cream if you’re quitting carbs—”

“Mom, I said I was giving up carbs like bread and chips–I didn’t say I was giving up everything that had any carbs in it.  We’re not reading labels, remember?  Just because ice cream might have some carbohydrates in it, doesn’t mean it’s a carb.  Everyone knows it’s a dairy.” I started to laugh but then realized she wasn’t.  She was dead serious. Which led me to two possible conclusions about my daughter: 

a)  My daughter isn’t as bright as I thought she was, or

b)  My daughter is much brighter than I thought she was, as evidenced by this cunning and crafty scheme to eat chocolate ice cream on her rigid “no carb” diet.

My gut told me to go with b.

And so we finished Day One of No Carbs/No Sugar/The New Healthy Us with Megan eating a large bowl of Tillamook Mudslide and me eating a whole wheat pita while I watched her.  To be fair, I’d toasted my pita and sprinkled it with Splenda and Cinnamon, hoping to feed my sugar craving with a tricked-out version of “cinnamon toast.” Megan looked down at my pita and sighed.

“You’re so lucky, you get to eat bread…(sigh)…I miss carbs.”  She looked longingly out into the night sky–as if a carb was there dancing among the stars–and then dipped her spoon deep into her bowl, pulling up a massive scoop of ice cream and turning it over to eat upside down, slowly and thoughtfully.


 I gnawed on my Splenda-soaked pita. It didn’t taste like cinnamon toast.  (In fact, it didn’t taste at all.) Megan finished her ice cream and gave me a hug before she went to bed. I did it Mom! A disciplined day with no carbs.  What a champ.

We woke up this morning and went to church.  About halfway through the meeting Megan leaned over and whispered, “I have a chocolate bar in my purse.”

“You do?’  This was pure malice.  Megan knows that at no time do I crave chocolate like I do during the three long hours of church.  My lips quivered a little and my voice came out small. “Are you gonna eat it?”

“Of course I’m gonna eat it.  It’s not a carb.” She looked at me and smiled.

No, Megan.  It’s not.