Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Room and Bored

As always when I am in the car, I was listening to a podcast. This one happened to be an NPR magazine-format show called Weekend America, and the segment was one of those “No, duh” pieces about how being a parent is harder once the kids get out of school for the summer. This piece is the flair-for-the-obvious fraternal twin of the segment they will do in December about how hard parents are working to find the hot toy of the year for the holidays.

Anyway, they were interviewing this couple who were listing the classes and camps they had lined up for her pre-teen sons for this summer. To his credit, the father said at one point, “You know, we’ve become those over-scheduling parents”, which is admirably self-aware of him, and the mother did say she kind of wish summer didn’t have to be like this. And then she said, “But I don’t want them to be bored!”

This woman isn’t alone in this fear. For many parents, boredom has gone from being a temporary feeling your child might have, which is quickly alleviated by threatening them with chores, to something on a par with radiation poisoning:

They’re BORED! Dear God, fix it before it does permanent damage!

They’re BORED! Brain cells are dying all over the place!

They’re BORED! Decontaminate them as best as you can before the UC college system hears of this!

The funny part of it was, this same mother had just recited the painfully hackneyed Baby Boomer monologue, When I was their age, I would go out for the day on my bike, my mother would never know where I was, and I would come home for dinner, but they can’t have that.

Let’s disregard whether childhood has gotten less safe, or is now just perceived as less safe, thanks to 24-hour news channels which need you anxious enough about the latest child abduction so that you’ll stay tuned through the commercials; like I said, let’s disregard that. If she truly believes her children can’t have freedom outdoors, and she truly believes that helped shape the person she is now, wouldn’t it behoove her to give them some serious freedom inside their own heads?

A brief digression which will make sense in the long run, I hope. There has been some pretty conclusive evidence that the children who have been raised in highly clean, antiseptic environments are having greater problems with allergies and asthma than kids raised with pets and a certain laissez-faire attitude towards cleanliness. It turns out that our immune systems might need things to react to, and learn from, or it doesn’t respond correctly to normal stimulus.

Likewise, I believe small doses of boredom throughout childhood teach a person how to create an inner life. If your entire day, or week, or month, or year is planned out, your boredom immune system will never have the chance to develop a normal response. Sometimes you have to get bored, and then really bored, and then lie-on-the-floor-and-count-the-paisley-squiggles-on-your-bedspread bored before inspiration strikes. What is the brain deprived of if it doesn’t get that opportunity?

A childhood of nothing but enrichment and structure might create an excellent cubicle jockey, capable of following orders resentfully but correctly, but I don’t think it will create a visionary or a leader. Even if a parent reading this doesn’t see much job security for their kid in the “Visionary” sector, consider this; learning how to find your own way out of boredom without outside help takes practice. Would you like them to learn it as small children or as adolescents, when the ways to eradicate boredom are plentiful and dangerous?

I am not without sin; I too have enriched to a fault. But I am a big believer in a bored child. This week, for example, I have cleared the deck of everything until mid-afternoon each day. Yes, the first hour on Monday was like chewing in tinfoil, because Daughter believes I will get suckered into entertaining her if only she draws attention to herself often enough:

“Mommy, you should come and have a tea party with me.”

“No, sweetie, I have to work. If you want guests, invite the Polly Pockets.”

(Two minutes later)

“Mommy, please get down the tea set”

(Two minutes later)

“May I have water for the tea?”

“Of course, you know where it is.”

“But I want ice, please.”

(Quinn got ice)

(Two minutes later)

“I need cookies.”


“You need cookies…what?”

“I need cookies…for the tea party.”

(Two minutes were spent doing our version of “Who’s on First?” until Daughter remembered “Please”)

(Two minutes later)



“The tea party’s over. Are you done working so we can play Candyland?”

At this point, I dragged her into my lap. I looked deeply into her eyes.

“Listen to me carefully. There are people who don’t know how to entertain themselves. We are not those kinds of people. I have every faith that you will remember how to make your own fun. I will work on emails, and you will work on remembering. If you are spurting blood, come into the office and show me. Do not use the stove. Otherwise, I will see you in an hour.”

She huffed out, and I listened with half an ear to her stomping around the living room, flopping on the couch, sitting behind the armchair, listing my faults to anyone who might be interested. After a while, she banged into her room. I went back to cleaning up emails which required something more than a form response, and stopped listening to her. A few minutes later, I heard knock on the door.

“I need Popsicle sticks, Play-Doh, and three paper plates, please.”

It was said civilly enough. I retrieved the objects from the craft drawer. She took them with a soft “Thanks” and headed back to her room.

When I was finally caught up, I looked at the computer clock; nearly an hour had passed. I went to her room and knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Daughter was at her desk, the objects she requested strewn around her. She was frowning.

“How’s it going?”

“It’s not doing what I want it to do.”

“Do you want some help?”

(No sane person would give Daughter unsolicited advice twice.)

“No. Just please go away. I’m working.”

I accidentally tripped over her trashcan on the way out of her room, making a fair amount of noise as I did so. Daughter never looked up from the paper plate she was cutting.


Blogger houseband00 said...

Hi Quinn,

You really struck a chord there.

I tend to take things seriously my son says he's bored. When the words, "Dad, what could I do today?" leave my son's mouth, I suffer a mild panic attack.

3:37 AM  
Blogger Vikki said...

This was thought provoking. We are very conscious of the tendency of parents to overschedule their children these days and really hope that we don't fall into the trap. I do, however, understand how it can happen.

I have recently thought a lot about what I did as a child and how little structure I had during the weekends and summers. Even though I do believe that we perceive the world to be less safe and have no way of knowing if that is a fact, I would not feel comfortable letting my children roam as I did. It's all very complicated isn't it?

6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally do not believe that children (or parents) can escape the dreaded summer boredom.

Stepson's school let out on a Wednesday and when his father called him on Friday, he was already bored with summer.

"I'm bored"
"it's boring"
"there's nothing to do"

A look at his site (yes, we covertly monitor), reveals all of his friends are bored, bored, bored too.

Interestingly enough, suggestions on ways to fill his time (when he comes to stay with us) are met with a look of shock and horror that I cannot describe.

"Why don't you help your dad build that pergola?"
"I could use some help preparing dinner"
"The plants in the garden need watering"
Then there's the worst - "Why don't you read a book?"

When he arrives this year, we are implementing a software program that will severely limit his on-line time. I expect he'll spend his time learning how to hack computer systems. Oh well, it's a little educational.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

Somewhere around here I still have the list I hung on the basement door every summer.

"100 Things to Do BEFORE You Can Tell Me You Are Bored."

At least I didn't have to hear about it.

I do remember once finding my kids watching TV with the sound off. They were making up their own dialog. It's really quite fun! Not as mind numbing as straight TV.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn--I absolutely loved this post...may I have your permission to print it (with credit to you of course) and give it to a teacher friend? This is something that should go home in back-packs the last day of school!


5:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'd be absolutely honored if some teacher thought it merited the backpack. You have my permission.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

You should see the tricks I play around here! I manufacture "boring" days at home and leave my children (5 and 7) to find their own fun...but I absolutely forbid them to use the word "bored" (or any form of the word). I've told them boredom is for small minds and is considered sinful in our family. They totally believe me. One day recently, my 7-year-old came to me and said, "Mommy, I'm kinda starting to feel that way that I'm not supposed to know, the "B" word. But...well...I guess I'll think of something." Then he ran off and found something to do!

8:52 PM  
Blogger Goslyn said...

Great post, Quinn. What did Daughter make out of her popsicle sticks, paper plate and play-doh?

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree.

When my kids say they are "bored", grandma replies, "If you are bored, it's your fault!"

4:38 PM  

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