George Will

Not really. Bronson and Merryman say driver's ed teaches the rules of the road and mechanics of driving, but teenagers are in fatal crashes at twice the rate of other drivers because of poor decisions, not poor skills. The wiring in the frontal lobe of the teenage brain is not fully formed. Driver's ed courses make getting a license easy, thereby increasing the supply of young drivers who actually have holes in their heads.

Their unfinished heads should spend more time on pillows. Only 5 percent of high school seniors get eight hours of sleep a night. Children get a hour less than they did 30 years ago, which subtracts IQ points and adds body weight.

Until age 21, the circuitry of a child's brain is being completed. Bronson and Merryman report research on grade schoolers showing that "the performance gap caused by an hour's difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader." In high school there is a steep decline in sleep hours, and a striking correlation of sleep and grades.

Tired children have trouble retaining learning "because neurons lose their plasticity, becoming incapable of forming the new synaptic connections necessary to encode a memory. ... The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night."

The school day starts too early because that is convenient for parents and teachers. Awakened at dawn, teenage brains are still releasing melatonin, which makes them sleepy. This is one reason why young adults are responsible for half the 100,000 annual "fall asleep" automobile crashes. When Edina, Minn., changed its high school start from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., math/verbal SAT scores rose substantially.

Furthermore, sleep loss increases the hormone that stimulates hunger and decreases the one that suppresses appetite. Hence the correlation between less sleep and more obesity.

Bronson and Merryman slay a slew of myths. But perhaps the soundest advice for parents is: Lighten up. People have been raising children for approximately as long as there have been people. Only recently -- about five minutes ago, relative to the long-running human comedy -- have parents been driving themselves to distraction by taking too seriously the idea that "as the twig is bent the tree's inclined." Twigs are not limitlessly bendable; trees will be what they will be.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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