How Daylight Saving Time Affects Our Children

As a country, we have become increasingly less child-centric. Is the push for year-round Daylight Savings Time a symptom of that?

‘Telling Time’
‘Telling Time’ (photo: Shutterstock)

The United States will officially return to standard time at 2am on Sunday, Nov. 6. Clocks will “fall back” one hour, i.e., it will become 1am and people will gain an extra hour of sleep. They’ll pay for it next March 12.

In recent years, a vocal movement has arisen to keep Daylight Savings Time (DST) all year. That would end turning clocks back one hour in autumn. The U.S. Senate adopted legislation to do that this year; it has not been voted on in the House.

DST first was introduced in the United States in 1918 as an emergency energy-saving measure during World War I. Again, for three years starting in 1942, FDR ordered the United States on year-round DST as a wartime measure. 

Otherwise, when World War I ended, so did federal DST. States were free to keep it or not. Some did; others didn’t. The problem became that, absent uniform national standards, the United States became a patchwork of conflicting times because individual states set when to start and end DST.

To overcome that confusion, Congress in 1966 established a national standard — states were free to use or not use DST, but if they did, it began on the last Sunday of March and ended on the last Sunday of October. That’s why states cannot currently adopt year-round DST without Congressional approval.

During the energy shortages caused OPEC’s oil embargo in the early 1970s, Congress began incremental extensions of DST, until it eventually spanned from the second Sunday of March until the first Sunday of November, our current system. The energy shortage era was also the last time Congress attempted to impose year-round DST. It began that year on Jan. 6, 1974, and was supposed to run until DST would have normally resumed in late April 1975. In fact, Congress abandoned trying to keep DST throughout winter 1974-75, although DST returned earlier, on Feb. 23, 1975.

So why is this theologian writing about DST? 

Because of children.

In the United States, two constituencies traditionally wanted the return of standard time in the fall: parents and farmers. Parents wanted standard time in late fall and winter because, otherwise, children had to get up and go to school in the dark. Farmers’ schedules were set by their animals, who rose with the sun and dew, regardless of what the clock said.

The reason the 1974 experiment for year-round DST was repealed was parental opposition: year-round DST requires children to get up and go to school in the dark for most of the winter. When year-round DST went into effect Jan. 6, 1974, sunrise in New York was 8:20am. When it began prematurely on Feb. 23, 1975, a New York sunrise was still 7:40 a.m., earlier than the previous year but still after most kids would have had to get up for school.

DST is, to some degree, a misnomer. DST does not “save” any time. The sun will be out in New York on Dec. 21 for nine hours and 15 minutes. DST will not extend the amount of available daylight; it will only determine whether that daylight starts at 7:16am or 8:16am and ends at 4:31 p.m. or 5:31 p.m.

In the 48 years since 1974, America has changed. In 1974, when I was a high school sophomore, more kids probably walked to school; today, they are likely bused or driven. Back then, kids probably came home from school earlier; today, after-school activities, “extended days,” and after-school day care necessitated by two-parent work schedules probably mean most kids have busy late afternoons. My first class started at 8:20 in high school, 8:35 in elementary school. My son’s elementary and high school classes begin at 8:00, which means he is on the bus at least a half-hour earlier. 

How should we evaluate these considerations of children in the current debate over keeping DST all year?

The Senate on March 15 approved permanent DST unanimously. In all the press I’ve seen about this change, I am mostly struck by the silence about DST’s impact on school-bound children in the morning.

Have we decided that’s no longer an issue? If so, I’d enjoy hearing why. What concerns me, though, is the sound of silence. Does that mean we’ve decided we don’t care how DST in winter affects child welfare?

As a country, we have become increasingly less child-centric. Fewer people are marrying; even fewer are having fewer children. The National Marriage Project documented a decade ago that the time Americans spend with a minor child in their lives is shrinking. Fertility rates have been below replacement level since 2008: that implosion will soon hit college and, as I have recently written about the demise of a Catholic college in New York, this demographic “cliff” will likely lead to massive school closures, especially in the Catholic sector. 

So, is the push for year-round DST part of that loss of child-centeredness?

After all, the primary complaint about changing clocks is changing clocks. Resetting timepieces and monitors. Nobody complains about the hour of extra autumn sleep in the dark; they gripe about being groggy in springtime, when they wake up in the light. But would we rather deal with kids on the streets in the morning, when we’re asleep — or in the evening, after being alert for hours?  

There’s also plenty of noise nowadays about whether kids (especially teenagers) need more sleep and whether that should change school schedules. If we were concerned about children going to school on dark mornings, we’d be talking about switching school schedules. Except I don’t hear that happening, and if resetting a few clocks and watches elicits such frustration, then resetting school schedules — with its follow-on impact on parental and work schedules — will likely generate far more complaints. 

So, have we decided that, as regards children, we don’t care?

I hope not, and welcome DST proponents to enlighten me about dark fall and winter school mornings. It’s not a theological issue. But is it saying something about the status of children now in today’s America?