“I have nothing to do.”
I would bet real money that no parent reading those two statements can avoid either a rueful smile or a shudder of recollection, depending on how traumatic the memory is. Boredom, or the assertion of boredom, is a fact of family life – mostly of course in the holidays, when (for a change) your child’s life isn’t controlled by bells, deadlines and homework.
Boredom itself though is a relatively modern concept. It doesn’t actually even appear as a word in English until 1852 (in Dickens’ Bleak House). Whether you find this ironic or completely apt will depend a lot on your attitude to Dickens. Boredom is entirely a product of the modern age, arriving (as with so many other things that have since helped or blighted the world, depending on your point of view) with the Industrial Revolution. Before then you couldn’t be bored; you could only be idle. And boredom has gained a bad reputation, possibly because of its connection with idleness. Today boredom is almost unthinkingly accepted as an undesirable state – we try our best to avoid it, and to shield our children from it. They, in their turn, regard it as an inalienable right of childhood not to be bored, and are by turns puzzled, frustrated and outraged when they do, in spite of all our well-meaning efforts, encounter it.
But should we fear boredom? Is being bored actually such a bad thing? Genevieve Bell, corporate psychologist at Intel thinks not, “What’s fascinating is that in the moment of disengagement, your brain lights up….And it turns out that the pieces of your brain that light up when you’re bored are very different to the ones that light up when you’re engaged. And it also turns out that from both a psychological and a physical perspective, being bored is actually a moment where your brain gets to reset itself.”
“This” she says, “is the boredom of all of our childhoods. This is the boredom of being kicked out of the back door by your mother every summer and told to come home when it gets dark.”
Bell’s argument is that boredom is an integral part of being human, and that we don’t allow ourselves (and importantly as parents, that we don’t allow our children) to experience boredom in the way we were allowed to experience it as children, in the way that humans are evolved to experience it.
Because it is difficult to be bored today, especially as a child. There are 4 billion mobile phones in circulation (I think my teenager owns most of them), a billion PCs, 2.5 billion televisions – that’s a lot of technology between us and boredom. If you are a child in the holidays you can add a host of camps, days out, play dates and (probably) anxious parents standing between you and even the possibility of boredom.
Lyn Fry is a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society,” she says. “Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy. If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”
We see this a lot at Wild Learning: children will often wander aimlessly around the camp for the first 10 minutes, clearly unsure of what to do with themselves without a specific task or deadline. It is surprisingly hard, as an adult, a parent, and someone working at a holiday club, not to swoop in and make suggestions. But I really think that’s the wrong thing to do – children need the opportunity to be bored, to realise that there is nothing they have to do, and to spend some time trying to work out what they want to do. This is what Bertrand Russell described as ‘fruitful monotony’ and it’s a vanishingly rare experience for most children in the developed world today. Sometimes you can almost see a child’s mental gears slipping as they try to find some traction in this unfamiliar space. Usually however, a few minutes later you will look at them again and they will be deep in some complex task or imaginative game – activities which, I believe, almost always arise after a period of boredom.
Genevieve Bell sums up by pointing out that every one of the electronic devices we use every day works best if they are constantly connected – to power, to the network, to content.
“But the thing about human beings, and it has been true for thousands of years, is that we work best if we are intermittently disconnected.”
So the next time your child announces – with the sort of gravity with which they might announce a terminal illness – “I’m bored,” don’t clutch wildly at your phone or laptop for details of a new class or club, or call a friend desperately in search of a play date.
Take a deep breath, compose yourself and say “So….?”