Two little boys pictured in a long-ago cartoon are discussing their bedtimes. Smiling broadly, one boy says to his friend, "Every year my parents let me stay up 20 minutes later. I figure by the time I'm 40 I won't have to go to bed at all."
That youthful wish, perhaps the fleeting dream of any child who has ever resisted a bedtime, has been coming closer to bleary-eyed reality in recent years as children's evenings stretch longer and longer. Talk to teachers from kindergarten through high school and some will tell stories of yawning students who can barely stay awake in class. Ask parents why, and they will offer multiple reasons for their offspring's decidedly adult hours - everything from television and homework to after-school jobs. Another culprit can be parents' own longer work schedules, which push dinner and family time later than they were a generation ago.
So common is the problem on both sides of the Atlantic - Seattle is not the only sleepless city - that Britain's Labour Party has come up with a radical idea: Get British parents to agree on fixed bedtimes for children. Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, wants schools, parents, and the media to take part in a national debate on when children should go to bed. If parents knew the national average for bedtime, he says, they would have greater authority to resist children's attempts to manipulate them. (Lives there a parent who hasn't at some point heard a plea on the order of, "Aw, Mom, everybody else gets to stay up until 11, why can't I?")
Although Mr. Straw believes parents would welcome a national consensus on bedtimes, he emphasizes that it is not the role of politicians to dictate mandatory restrictions, which would be unenforceable anyway. What makes bedtime a quasi-political issue is a Labour campaign to keep children under the age of 10 off the streets late at night. "Lax parenting," leaders say, contributes to juvenile crime.
Not surprisingly, the bedtime proposal has angered some adults, who charge the Labour Party with playing Big Brother and trying to create a "nanny state." Skip the moralizing, they are telling Labour leaders, and concentrate on plans for the economy and public services.
Yet Janet Anderson, a Labour spokeswoman, insists that some parents do want guidance on issues such as this. They don't want to be preached at, she says, but they want advice.
Advice already exists, of course, in a proliferation of childrearing books, each offering its author's point of view, which may directly counter another author's ideas. On the subject of bedtime, for instance, Dr. Benjamin Spock suggests that six-to-nine-year-olds be in bed by 8 p.m., while 12-year-olds can stay up until 9. Other child specialists take a more laissez-faire approach. One boarding school in Essex, England, requires a 9:30 p.m. "lights out" for 12-to-14-year-olds and 10:30 for 15- and 16-year-olds.
Ironically, while children may be staying up later, at least some working parents are heading for bed earlier. Television stations in the United States are finding a growing audience of early-risers who want news programs at 10 p.m. instead of 11. At the same time, newspaper carriers are scrambling to satisfy customers who need their morning paper on the driveway by 5:30 or 6 a.m. instead of the traditional 6:30 or 7.
If these opposing schedules continue within families, is the time approaching when the ultimate role reversal will feature wide-awake children tucking their exhausted parents into bed?
The Labour Party's attempt to initiate a national discussion raises intriguing possibilities. Government may not be the proper forum, here or abroad, for such a nonpolitical subject. And parenting by consensus can never take the place of individual solutions to meet specific family needs.
But as far-reaching debates go, this one could prove useful, perhaps ultimately balancing a situation that has gone to an extreme and even helping to restore childhood to children.
Benjamin ("Early to bed and early to rise") Franklin would probably approve.