We’ve entered the snow-and-slush phase of winter, and even though the days have been getting longer, the mornings still feel awfully dark. This week in Milwaukee, the sun has been rising around 7:13 AM — that’s only 12 minutes before my high schooler starts her first class of the day.
I’ve been thinking about how early mornings can be tricky for teenagers. Kids get a bad reputation for being cranky and unfocused first thing in the morning, but they’re working with a schedule that’s inherently stacked against them. Adolescent brains aren’t wired to be attentive and alert until later in the day. And who wants to do geometry at 7:25 AM (or really, at any other time)?
California decided to do something about this, passing a law that ensures middle schools can’t start the day before 8 AM, and high schools can’t begin until 8:30 AM. The law went into effect in 2022. Researchers think the later start times will help students attend school more regularly, do better in their classes, and experience fewer behavioral and psychological problems. When can I vote for this in my state? (Wisconsin lawmakers, are you listening?)
For now, I can only dream of a day when school starts at a more civilized hour. In the meantime, navigating the early mornings with two adolescents often feels like tiptoeing across a fraying tightrope that might give way at any second. Throw in the frigid darkness of winter and its sub-zero temperatures, and trying to engage my otherwise reasonable children during those fragile hours is like approaching a cranky hippopotamus.
The situation has been particularly challenging with my 12-year-old, who is the hard-core night owl in our family. When I go to wake her up (after she’s ignored her own alarm multiple times), I feel like I’m subjecting her to some medieval form of torture. I can hear the sleep experts now: Just make her go to bed earlier! It’s sound advice, and yes, we’ve tried. But the reality is that no matter what time she climbs into bed, her body just wants to party all night and wake up later. Blame it on her biology (and genetics; I’m somewhat of a night owl myself).
One evening as we got ready for bed, my daughter was telling me about one of her favorite shows. She asked if we could watch an episode together.
“We can’t tonight. It’s already too late and you need to go to sleep,” I said. I could tell she was disappointed, and I hated that I was missing a chance to connect with her.
And then, it was like the proverbial light bulb going off, and I can’t remember which one of us suggested it, but somehow we landed on a different idea: What if we watched the show tomorrow morning before school instead?
My daughter seemed intrigued. So we made a plan: We would meet up the next morning in the TV room, during that little pocket of time when she was usually eating breakfast and I was puttering around as my oldest got ready to leave.
When I knocked on my daughter’s door the next day, she greeted me with a tentative smile. Gone was the moping about having to wake up. Today we were women on a mission. I grabbed my overnight oats and started the coffee, she got her toast and tea, and we curled up with blankets and the episode of her choosing.
For the next 23 minutes or so, the TV room was more than a space above the garage that housed old LEGO sets and doll furniture. It became a place of intentional connection, our reprieve from the morning’s usual stresses and obligations, where our only task was to immerse ourselves in the story playing out on the screen.
Afterward, on the drive to school, we talked about the show and our favorite characters. My daughter broke down some of the key plot twists and I found myself looking forward to watching more episodes with her. She started the school day in a much better mood than usual — and I did, too.
Since that morning, my daughter and I have watched several more episodes together. We can’t make it happen every day, but I’m grateful for the times we can. While the newfound ritual hasn’t transformed either of us into a morning person, it has injected some welcome lightness and joy into these dreary winter days.
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