The truth about bored kids

The truth about bored kids

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There is a widely shared article on Quartz.com on how we’re over scheduling our kids (shocker, I know) and depriving them of the precious boredom they need to learn how to entertain themselves. It closes with this quote by the philosopher Bertrand Russel: “A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.”

With all due respect to one of the greatest intellects of the past century, Bertrand Russel, (and I definitely agree that a good amount of “fruitful monotony” must be endured to to even begin to understand Principia Mathematica, his greatest work) I still think I’ll take my modern-day parenting advice from someone born sometime after 1872.

Of course, as the Quartz article (and many others) show, there’s no shortage of modern day psychologists and other experts who argue our kids are over scheduled during the summer. The gist of the argument seems to be that being bored is a good thing. It’s necessary for learning how to entertain ourselves, developing creativity, and learning self-motivation.

All of this is fine and good as a general observation. But I hate the way it’s often framed as yet another parent fail. There go these modern parents again, over scheduling and hovering over their kids. Do they think we hate having down time? I like nothing more than sipping coffee and reading while my kids entertain themselves. Time to just relax and be together as a family is something everyone wants.

We don’t sit down and decide how to schedule our kids every waking moment. What we do is pay for camp which is basically child care so that we can work. Families whose parents get some time off during the summer don’t put their kids in camp for the entire summer. And kids who do go to camp usually still have time on evenings and weekends to flop around feeling bored. It’s not all or nothing, and it’s probably for the best.

I didn’t have any summer child care (camp or otherwise) for eight years. Did my learn to entertain themselves? Sure. Long-form narrative-driven creative play using every single toy in the house and whatever else they can turn into a prop is something my children are very good at. But they also watched way too much TV, completely trashed the house, and interrupted me endlessly to beg for snacks while I tried to get some work done. I need to weigh the benefits of boredom against my own sanity. So now my kids go to day camp for half the summer. We’ll take a family road trip and then bum around here for a couple weeks at the end — just long enough for me to cry tears of joy when the school year starts again.

As Leah Maclaren wrote recently in her Globe and Mail column, “For most kids, boredom is real and contrary to the “experts” on your social media feed, unstructured hours and empty days are not a magical portal into a nostalgic landscape of summers past. Having no camp, cottage or summer activities planned and paid for means endless hours of screen time because the local library is 10 blocks away and books and movies tickets are expensive. It means cereal poured from a box for breakfast, lunch and dinner while Mom and Dad commute back and forth to work.”

Could I let my ten and seven-year-olds go to a local park on their own instead of bumming around the house? (Of course, that still leaves me with a four-year-old to care for. But let’s pretend she’s somewhere else.) Sure! I would love nothing more than to open my door and shoo the kids out. Come back for dinner! But I don’t because traffic is a menace in this city. Shawn Micallef notes in a recent Toronto Star column, “Just last Monday alone eight pedestrians were struck by cars, one in Rexdale fatally, and four cyclists were hit.” I was about to leave my two oldest kids at a local parkette, just two sides streets away, last week while I went home to get dinner started. But a steady stream of cars, trucks and SUVs whipping around the corners of those side streets changed my mind. I made them come home with me. Maybe next year.

All this talk of kids roaming free and making their own fun smacks of a naive, privileged never land. It’s as though kids are being plucked out of lovely gardens with nannies on hand to provide nourishing snacks throughout the day and made to endure the rigours of a day spent playing capture the flag and swimming with teen counselors. Can we admit that the alternative is much more like Maclaren paints, kids bumming around watching TV, playing video games, exploring the internet and snacking on prepackaged food?

What happens when a working parent does try to “let them be bored and spend time outside”? Remember the McDonald’s mom from two years ago? The one who let her nine-year-old spend the day at the park rather than looking at a screen? That’s right, we get charged with neglect.

Summer vacation is a serious challenge for most parents to figure out. (I recently discussed this very thing with Brandie Weikle on The New Family podcast, too.) So let’s just give ourselves a pat on the back for getting through it.

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