In 2014, children rarely have the opportunity to become bored. There are, of course, the timeless classics that have entertained kids for millennia – being outside, playing games, building elaborate villages with Barbies or Legos (okay, so maybe they weren’t doing that hundreds of years ago, but you know what I mean). There are also oodles of technology-filled pastimes, from low-tech marvels like TV and music-listening to ever-updating apps and video games and things that I’m not even remotely hip enough to know about. We can talk ourselves in circles about how much technology is good versus how much is bad, how infrequently children play outside; how over-scheduled their lives are; I’m not even going to attempt to enter into those debates. I will say, however, that all of these things do mean that children almost never have the chance to be bored – they can just fire up the computer, trade Pokeman cards, or set the DVR to record a program that can be watched at any time of the day or night, no more “Oh, I guess I’ll have to wait until it’s on…” or, heaven help us, sitting through commercials.
After observing said never-bored children when they’ve been faced with the slightest bit of change-in-routine adversity, I feel that I can confidently say that boredom is a good thing.
We need to bring back boredom.
Case in point: after returning Jambi for Advanced Training, we began our drive home via ferry from Long Island to Connecticut. Allow me to paint the scene… A three-deck ship traversing Long Island Sound, cutting majestically through the water at the bow and leaving a frothy white wake at the stern. A gorgeous summer day, sunny but not too warm, salt air breeze billowing around us. Crashing, soaring waves ahead, as though caused by the strongest imaginable current (in fact, they marked where the Sound meets the Atlantic, and they were, indeed, caused by monstrous currents). Sailboats and fishing vessels and motorboats zipping in and out of our line of sight, which extended down the sweeping coast of extreme eastern Long Island, over to the Connecticut shoreline, and all the way out to sea. Rentable binoculars that swiveled in all directions, with which you could see every detail of the passing boats, buildings, and landscape. A formidable-looking building on a formidable-but-beautiful-looking island (which, we learned upon Googling, was Plum Island, home of mysterious government research). A charming lighthouse, promising safety and salvation. Birds cruising overhead, hundreds of passengers with bags and snacks and stories to be imagined, shipboard rooms to be explored and visited.
In other words, essentially the perfect setting for a wickedly entertaining action/travel/ adventure movie, complete with intrigue and mystique and mysteriously deep bodies of water…
… and yet, my girls? Bored. BORED TO DEATH.
Although we had a car full of books and drawing supplies and the like, they opted not to bring any of said items with them onto the decks. Likewise, Nick and I forbade them from using their iPads, citing a) that there was no need, as we’d only be onboard for a little over an hour and we tend to reserve electronics for longer journeys, b) they had us and their grandparents to converse and hang out with, and c) we are on a ship traveling over water and past lighthouses with the Atlantic Ocean at our fingertips and how can you find nothing to do omg??
Believe it or not, they – in fact – found nothing to do. Nothing at all for the entire sixty-plus minutes we were on that beautiful, lovely, exciting, godforsaken ferry. Well, I should rephrase that; nothing at all except complaining about how they were so bored and that there was nothing to do.
I had assumed that such behavior was not unique to my children but didn’t have an opportunity to put my assumption to the test until yesterday when I volunteered as one of the playground monitors at the girls’ elementary school. Although there was no precipitation during recess itself, it and rained earlier in the day, covering everything with a fine layer of water drops and puddles. The official (i.e. paid) playground monitors attempted to dry off the equipment, but their towels were doing little good; after seeing several first graders slip off the monkey bars and slide – not in the good way – down the climbing walls, the principal decided that it was simply too wet to allow the students to actually play on the playground, so recess was then limited to playing on the blacktop or swings. (Why the kiddos couldn’t play on the fields was a mystery to me; concern over slipping on the wet grass seemed overblown at best; concern over wet sneakers seemed even sillier. Given that our school is not prone to overreacting or helicoptering, however, and generally allows kids to be kids, I decided to give the principal the benefit of the doubt and just go along with the no playing on the grass thing.)
Because there are only six (or eight? I can’t remember) swings, the majority of the students found themselves on or near the blacktop for the duration of recess. It should be noted that the blacktop is an area the is entirely devoid of anything to do, a vast wasteland of asphalt… except for the basket ball hoops on each end (and the requisite basketballs to toss into such hoops), the marked-off four-square courts (and the requisite balls with which to play), the hopscotch boards, the life-sized tic-tac-toe boards, a brick wall replete with drawings, benches upon which to sit, etc. Oh! And did I mention that the children were not required to stand atop the blacktop alone but could bring all of their friends with them?
To be fair, some of the kids entertained themselves all recess long. There were basketball free-throws and impromptu games of Red Rover and marauding bands of children who stalked the corners of the blacktop and gossiped to their hearts’ content. But, by far, the two-word phrase I heard uttered more than any other was, “I’m bored!” or it’s four-word cousin, “This is so boring!”
Now, I’m hardly the paragon of childhood self-entertainment. It’s long been noted that I used to come downstairs as a kid and ask my mom, “What fun thing do you have planned for me today?” I, like virtually all children, uttered the B word more times than I’d like to count, until my mom actually forbade me from using it. But I did know how to go outside and entertain myself – not with dolls, not with toys, but simply by being and using my imagination. Some of my happiest memories as a kid revolve around the forts that my brother and I created beneath and within the branches of enormous trees, or the “king chairs” that we dug into snowbanks at the top of our driveway.
Today, it’s different. Kids are used to being constantly entertained, to having little – or no – downtime in which to unwind and actually have to devise ways to keep themselves occupied and busy. They go from school to home (almost never by walking) to homework (often scripted) to sports (run by an adult to tells them what to do) to enrichment classes (also run by an adult) to music lessons (taught by grown-ups with an agenda) to dinner to bed. Their “free time” is filled with play, yes – but, left to their own devices, that play would almost always include Minecraft or shows on the Disney Channel or the latest unbeatable level on Candy Crush. Their days are so very structured, with very few opportunities to even consider the art of making something out of (what seems like) nothing.
It makes sense, then – sadly – that neither my girls nor many of the hundreds of kids on that playground were able to occupy themselves with their simple surroundings. They were unable to see that, actually, there was so much to do. They could examine the passing ships and make up stories about where they came from and where they were going. They could look for colonies of ants that were making their homes along the blacktop’s edge. They could count the stairs between the decks or the strides necessary to traverse the blacktop diagonally. They could time themselves (by, like, counting out loud instead of using an app or a watch) to see how quickly they could cross the area in front of them backwards and sideways. They could pick blades of grass and try to whistle with them or braid them together. They could invent tales of espionage and action, elaborate fantasies of why they needed to cross the Sound via ferry instead of driving through Manhattan and up the Connecticut shore. They could stretch. They could do jumping jacks. They could see how long they could stand on one leg or only their tippy tip toes. They could talk to their friends or parents or grandparents – not about anything specific; just talking. They could look up at the sky and search for shapes in the clouds. They could look up at the sky for no other reason than that the sky is not the earth and it is far away and a special kind of magic. They could breathe in deliciously fresh air and appreciate not being stuck indoors all day long.
But mostly? They don’t. They’re just bored.
I know; some of this comes with age. It’s not just a child-of-2014 deficit. But this generation of kids is more scheduled and structured than any we’ve seen before, with more time spent on screens than we could ever have imagined when we were their age, and as a result, they are used to having someone else provide their entertainment – which means they don’t have any idea what to do with themselves when they don’t have something (specific) to do.
Which is crappy because being able to distract oneself when stuck in an undesirable situation is a pretty damned important skill. We’ve all had those dreaded moments at the doctor’s office – or, God forbid, the DMV – when we realize the magazines are from 2011 and we have to preserve the little battery life that remains on our cellphones because we’ll need Google Maps to help us get to the pharmacy (because paper maps? Please) and suddenly terror strikes as we stare thirty minutes of dead air straight in the face. We’ve had those moments waiting in the line that is 397 times longer than the ride itself and we’ve given our phones to our oldest child so that she can take photos of her father trying his hand at whack-a-mole and there’s not even so much as a stray coupon or Advil label to read in our purses or backpacks. THE HORROR.
Truth is, life involves a lot of waiting around, and if you have no ability to occupy yourself unless you’ve got a handheld electronic device within reach or a copy of Us Weekly, it’s not gonna be pretty. Moreover, we’re not going to get very far – I’m talking big picture here, like as a species – if we don’t have people coming up with new ideas and inventions. To do that, imagination and free-thinking is needed, stat. I’m pretty sure that young Benjamin Franklin was roaming his backyard, just biding his time with his kite, as a storm approached and suddenly something sparked his imagination (see what I did there?). If he’d spent every waking moment shuttling between soccer practice and orchestra and besting the next level of the Star Wars version of Angry Birds, he might never have examined his glasses more closely and decided to create bifocals.
As a kid, I think that boredom is pretty much par for the course (as an adult, I honestly don’t understand how anyone over the age of 20 can be bored; there is so much to do in any given day, having nothing to do would be such a wonderful luxury – I can assure you that I’d fill it with mindless blather that would keep me very, very happy). But we’re not doing our children any good by providing them with entertainment 24/7 (yes, this comes from the mom with a Summer Fun List who hates endless stretches of nothing). I bet even Thomas Edison was bored from time to time, which is a good thing because without the ideas that were generated during his downtime, we’d be way behind schedule and might still be listening to “All About That Bass” on 8-track.
I don’t think it’s possible to fully teach kids how to divert their attention. We can help, we can provide suggestions, but in the end, the only way that kids learn how to occupy their time and use their imaginations is to actually do it. And the way to allow them that opportunity means allowing for more downtime – and for more time to be bored. The best way to learn how to beat boredom is to face it enough that you know how to kick its butt.
So, I hereby propose that we bring back boredom. Go on – get outside and play. No, you don’t need to bring the baseball and the bat with you. Just leave the bikes behind. That’s right, you can just be outside with nothing to do – until you create or discover something to do.
Nick and I are really not the hovering type of parents; our girls have a lot of freedom and leeway to learn, to create, to make their own mistakes, to develop confidence and competence. Still, they lack the ability to easily distract themselves without a device or some toys, so we’ve already begun implementing this new philosophy at home, providing stretches of time when we “make” them run along with no crutches to lean on. Ella and Annie don’t yet seem to view this in a positive light, especially when they tell me that they’re bored and I gleefully – and genuinely – chime back, “That’s awesome!”
Someday, when they’re adults, I hope they’ll appreciate the ability to entertain themselves. Especially if we still have the DMV.