Friday, June 17, 2005

Give children's boredom a chance

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.06.17
EDITION: Final
SECTION: News
PNAME: Arguments
PAGE: A17
BYLINE: Michael Reist
SOURCE: Citizen Special

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Give children's boredom a chance

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'I'm bored!" Why do these words fill parents with so much dread? Why do they make us feel the need to rush in and fill the vacuum?

Boredom is not a problem to be solved. Boredom is an opportunity. Being bored means your agenda is clear and you are at that most fantastic of places -- the place where you can choose something new.

Boredom is never a permanent state. For some kids it may last five minutes; for some five days. The trick for parents is to let it happen. On the other side of this pause, something mysterious is waiting -- and we rob our kids of something when we jump in and fill the time for them.

Let them go where only children can go. This is a place that many baby-boomer children knew -- especially in summer -- a place of forts, late-night hide-and-seek games, of walking downtown, and just hanging out on the street.

This world has been replaced by camps, programs and "activities" -- the new name for "play."

Why do we find it so hard to leave kids to draw from their own inner wells? Could it be that our own inner wells have gone dry, and we assume our children's have too? Have we forgotten what freedom is and can no longer imagine it for our children?

We've become so accustomed to marching to the beat of other people's drums, we can only think to sign up our kids to do the same. And so this summer, legions of children will be bussed off to camps, programs and activities, never having the luxuries that money cannot buy -- daydreaming, wandering, pretending, lazing around.

Dealing with boredom is also excellent preparation for adulthood. As a high-school teacher, I meet so many kids who, when left to their own devices, do not know what to do and do not know how to control themselves. They are so used to being told what to do. They are so used to having every vacuum filled for them. They are the products of "programs" -- not only the program of school, but all the other programs we buy to fill up those in-between times like March Break and summer holidays -- all to avoid that great bogeyman, boredom.

Our approach has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: You have to keep them busy or they will get into trouble. Idle hands are the devil's workshop.

As a result, when many children's hands are idle, they become what they have been perceived by adults to be: trouble! They act out our implied expectations of them.

So we give them lots to do; they don't learn how to be independent or self-directed, and, when those times requiring independence and responsible behaviour inevitably come later in life, they are unprepared.

George Bernard Shaw said we fear freedom because it requires responsibility. We prefer obedience -- it's easier. Following other people's agendas is easier than having to decide what to do for oneself.

So programs are good and boredom is bad. Or so the logic goes.

With summer holidays just around the corner, why not give boredom a try? It means one thing has ended and something new is about to begin -- we just don't know what it is yet. Wait for it. That's the hardest part.

Michael Reist is head of the English department at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School in Caledon East, Ont.

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