by Jane Parent
If you have teens, you know how early school start times wreak havoc on your mornings. Maybe your teenager springs out of bed with a bright smiling face and a fistful of sharpened pencils, but most teens require a little more of a push to get out of bed. The excitement of the first day of school is going to be over in exactly one day, and then you will be left with the prospect of ever-darkening mornings, an increasingly tired teen, and a grumpy face at your breakfast table. If only there were a better way to deal with those early school start times, to start everyone’s day off on a happier note, and send them off with a smile on their lips and a song in their heart.
School Start Times
There is a better way, and my college friend Bobby Kloska is doing it right. Every morning, Bobby gets his five kids up and ready for those early school start times with customized, themed music playlists carefully selected (with his sense of humor firmly in place) to get them out of bed, moving, and happy.
First day of school? No problem. The music starts in the kitchen with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. Does his 9-year-old think it’s as hilarious as he does? Not exactly, but at least his teens thought it was mildly amusing. Next was “Quando, Quando, Quando” by Englelbert Humperdinck (“Please don’t make me wait again” and “Every day seems like a lifetime”), then “The Boys are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy (“Guess who just got back today, Them wild-eyed boys that had been away”), “Pompeii” by Bastille (“If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all? I’m gonna be an optimist about this”), then “Dreamer” by Supertramp (“Dreamer, nothing but a dreamer, but can you put your hands in your head, oh no!”). Off the “Breakfast in America” album—get it? Each song—catchy, singable, and positive – is thoughtfully selected to mesh seamlessly with his “Back to School” theme.
It all started a few years ago—after a job change, Bobby was home in the mornings more than he had previously been. He noticed a low-hanging mood of “grumpy negativity” around the breakfast table. One morning, he found his fifth grade daughter slumped in her chair and quietly weeping. “I just hate going to school in the morning,” she sobbed. It broke his heart, and he spent the rest of the day thinking what he could do to make her mornings a little happier.
Bobby realized that they always had the news on in the morning, which filled their house with unhappy things: accidents, natural disasters, mass shootings, politics. It didn’t put anyone in an optimistic, hopeful mood, ready to face the challenges of a new day. So he spent a few minutes on Spotify and came up a playlist. The rules: every song had to be upbeat, positive, catchy, and clean. He called it “Happy Mornings” and it included: “Happy” (Pharrell Williams); “Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive” (Tony Bennett); “Getting’ Jiggy Wit It (Will Smith); “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Take 6); “Walking on the Sun” (Hit Crew); and the Notre Dame Victory March (well, we’re Notre Dame grads and it just makes us happy every time we hear it).
Three years and forty-two playlists later, he’s still at it. Does it work? You bet—and happiness is contagious. “At first, they were a little bewildered,” says Bobby, “but then they were amused because I was so into it myself. By the end of breakfast they were all smiling a little begrudgingly, but still, smiling.
After doing this every day for a week or two, they actually just gave in and started to enjoy it. Breakfast became a back-and-forth conversation about music, lyrics, and what made a song “good,” with the kids sharing some of their favorites and learning to be open to some of Bobby’s polkas and 80’s classics. Before long, his kids would come home saying “Dad, you gotta listen to this and put it on the next Happy Mornings playlist.” Bobby’s son introduced him to Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You,” and Bobby gets a kick out of the fact that his 17-year-old son now loves ELO.
It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone to hear that starting your day off with upbeat music can improve your mood. According to a 2013 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology, people can actively improve their moods and boost their overall happiness in just two weeks, simply by listening to upbeat music. Researchers found that an individual can specifically try to be happier, and that cheery music can aid the process of trying to be happy. Listening to mood-elevating music causes the brain to release the chemical dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and plays a critical role in movement, memory, behavior and cognition, sleep, mood, and learning.
In a 2011 study, researcher Robert J. Zatorre, professor of neuroscience at McGill University, found that listening to pleasurable music causes the brain’s reward center to respond in the same manner that it does to stimuli such as food, drugs, and sex. Even the anticipation of hearing music causes the brain to release dopamine. Zatorre concluded that music engages the brain, brings people pleasure, and “sets your cortex abuzz!” You know, the cortex—the part of your brain associated with higher brain function such as thought and action. What better way could there be to start off your teen’s school day than with a buzzing brain?
Early school start times are probably not anyone’s favorite thing about a new school year, and getting enough sleep is always a problem for busy teens. But you can start your family’s day right with upbeat music, a positive attitude, and a brain primed for learning and cognition. And it sure beats starting each day off by yelling “Hurry up, you’re going to be late,” doesn’t it?
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.