One of best things about summertime is the invitation to embrace a bit of laziness. Our hectic winter schedules get put aside. We can sleep in on hot summer mornings and stay up late on hot summer nights. There are no battles over homework, mealtimes tend to be later and more informal and there is generally less tension all around as we relax into a slower pace of life for a few precious weeks.
In between our travels and the occasional week at a summer camp, we settle in up at our favourite place in the whole world, a family cottage by a lake in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal. It’s very comfy, but certainly more rustic than our city life. The 3 girls share one room and everyone has to pitch in to keep the smaller space uncluttered and habitable. My parents are often there as well, and 3 generations under one small-ish roof means lots of wonderful memories and also a need for consideration and compromise.
While we do have both cable television and wifi at the cottage, we strongly encourage everyone spend most of their time outdoors. The girls initially bristle when I put limitations on screen time, since they don’t have homework or other demands, but we all gradually settle in to a slower pace of life. Shelves of toys accumulated over the years generally go untouched. We do a lot of reading. We swim or hang out with friends and family. We spend a lot of time making and eating food.
An every once in a while, when someone whines about how bored they are, I’m secretly very pleased.
I’m a big fan of bored kids. Boredom is the catalyst for creativity. Boredom is the reason they scour the recycling pile for old newspapers, which they rip into shred ands dip in a gloopy flour and water mixture to make papier mache. Boredom is the engine behind the elaborate homemade board games they invent, and then forget the next week. Boredom is the only way our dog gets groomed or taught new tricks. Boredom leads to all sorts of experiments in the kitchen, many involving chocolate, some of which were even edible. We’ve had treasure hunts invented, imaginary maps created, treehouses built.
Famous writers, from Nelson Mandela, to Martin Luther King, Jr., O. Henry and Antonio Gramsci, used the enforced idleness of their imprisonment to create some of the most important and enduring ideas and stories of our time.
There is a big difference between kids who are constructively bored and negatively numbed, however. We need to remember that boredom itself is a very modern concept. Prior to the 19th century, only the wealthiest people had any idle time on their hands, since simply eking out an existence required constant effort. A combination of labour-saving devices, the modern electronic entertainment industry and a coddled approach to child-rearing has left ou kids — and ourselves — expecting constant stimulation. I see it with my university students, who expect their professors to keep their attention with elaborate multimedia presentations and interactive activities.
Kids who are bored might initially spend more time bickering, but then realize they need to depend on each other to find something to do. My daughters have spent long afternoons by the lake engaged in made-up activities together, when they might otherwise not be able to endure even the 10-minute ride home from school in each others’ company.
Kids who are bored need to learn to figure out how to occupy themselves. They need to be creative, a quality that is notoriously difficult to teach. In fact, some suggest that too much conventional teaching actually erodes the natural creativity of children. The satirist P.J O’Rourke famously declared colleges to be places where “pebbles are polished and diamonds are dulled.”
The unstructured time we give our kids helps them explore their inner and outer worlds. It requires effort on their part to figure out what they want to do. It is ungraded, un-evaluated and unremarked upon by anyone other than themselves. It offers freedom, but can be intimidating to kids who are used to be stimulated, to getting toys that instruct them to follow rules to predetermined ends. It takes a bit of practice to get good at being bored.
The tricky part is that sometimes we parents need to be involved. We aren’t so good at being bored either. Sometimes our kids who claim to be bored need a bit of parental bonding. Or they need supplies or ingredients or a supervisory eye while they play capture the flag with canoes.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. And lazy summer afternoons are the best time to do this kind of learning.