Let the children be bored.
February 3, 2019 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Boredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. (NYT Book Review Editor Pamela Paul on the importance of boredom).
posted by stillmoving (73 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great piece—Yes yes YES! We are raising kids who do not know how to be alone with their own thoughts.
Some of my best childhood memories are of days when all I did was read, or days when my friends and I rode our bikes aimlessly through the neighborhood or made up our own games. No schedules, no scorecards, no uniforms... I know these are different times but I wish more kids had the chance to create their own fun without being programmed to expect others to entertain them.
posted by bookmammal at 4:23 PM on February 3, 2019 [16 favorites]


Right there with this. I got a lot out of boredom. Learned to wonder. Fantasized. Thought up ideas. Daydreamed. Even now I can tell I have less of an inner life because I can always distract myself with constantly consumable, utterly forgettable content.
posted by Miko at 4:29 PM on February 3, 2019 [20 favorites]


This is one of those things I don't understand. Before I had my phone I'd always have a book with me. Like no matter what if I got bored I'd pull out a book and read. So it's not like modern life changed a lot for me just reading different material.
posted by Carillon at 4:48 PM on February 3, 2019 [35 favorites]


Your book ended; sometimes you lost interest in the middle; sometimes you forgot it. There weren't teams of programmers analysing your every move with it and tracking how you read it in order to get you more addicted to it.

A phone is to your book what bottomless heroin refills are to a cup of tea.
posted by bonaldi at 5:16 PM on February 3, 2019 [43 favorites]


I can’t remember if I’ve told the story here before but it seems appropriate.

One time, I was probably in eighth or ninth grade and it was a nice day outside didn’t have anything going on. I remember telling my mom “I’m bored.” She asked me if I was certain that I was bored. I answered in the affirmative.

And that’s how I spent the next four hours picking up sticks in the front yard and putting them in the yard waste bin while my mom watched from the bay window in the kitchen.

I have never complained about boredom since that day, because I can always find something better to do than go outside and pick up sticks.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 5:23 PM on February 3, 2019 [24 favorites]


I’m surprised this wasn’t more about daydreaming. I was a constant daydreamer. I have vivid memories of staring out the window at clouds.

I think the article pushes it a little hard; like, I don’t think boredom should be this thing that teaches kids about reality. Engaging lesson plans seem preferable to boring ones, and besides, kids who don’t like the material will probably let their minds wanted no matter what kinds of visual aids are used.

I get my best thinking done when I’m bored. I try to let myself get bored (it’s a challenge). I don’t want to fall into that trap of thinking that what I want for myself is what’s best for kids. I have, however, noticed that everything seems to be geared towards maximizing kids’ time. Like, instead of play it should be enhanced play that will improve marketable skills. My nephew is 3, and there’s already societal pressure to get him on the road to success right now, at age 3. Is your child playing in a way that will enhance his verbal skills?

Lack of boredom just seems like a symptom of a much bigger problem.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:25 PM on February 3, 2019 [12 favorites]


In a recent conversation with my niece (now in her 30s) we agreed that one of the advantages of being brought up Catholic is that having to go to mass every Sunday as a child helps to inoculate you against boredom. An hour or so of paralyzing boredom a week allows you to develop all sorts of internal resources, or at least to develop great daydreaming skills. Mind you, both of us stopped going to church as soon as we could get away with it.

I also remember thinking during school French lessons that after school I would never have to be quite so bored again, and would be able to stand any level of dullness in the future.
posted by Fuchsoid at 5:38 PM on February 3, 2019 [14 favorites]


The thing that strikes me about this is less that I spent more time bored than I do now, and more that I had a bunch of internal skills for fighting boredom.

One in particular stands out — that I'd trained myself to sort of put a bookmark in daydreams and fantasies and mental debates with myself, so that if the boring patch of life ended partway through, I could save the rest for later. And at any given moment I'd have three or four bookmarked things on hand, such that if I hit a boring patch of life unexpectedly (oh crap, I locked myself out, it'll be half an hour before anyone else is home) I could pull one out and be like "Right, okay, let's have the tail end of this daydream, the first half seemed promising."

I don't do that anymore. I'm not even quite sure I know how to do that anymore.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:41 PM on February 3, 2019 [30 favorites]


boredom has sucked an will always suck, signed a pre-internet GenXer who grew up roaming creeks and alleys as a kid and spent most of my childhood desperately reading books when I wasn't outside.

I would have fucking loved the internet and Netflix in 1982 are you kidding me.
posted by nikaspark at 5:46 PM on February 3, 2019 [50 favorites]


I dunno you guys I spent a LOT of time bored as a kid and didn't come up with any of these amazing strategies for not being bored. All I did was try and fail to invent Harry Potter, Pokemon, and D&D on my own because I hadn't heard of them and didn't have anyone to play with. Imagine if I wasn't so bored and actually had something to do. I still really hate being bored and still spend a lot of time being bored and it's not this great thing. People need alone time and unstructured time for sure but everything in moderation.
posted by bleep at 5:47 PM on February 3, 2019 [14 favorites]


I don't do that anymore. I'm not even quite sure I know how to do that anymore

hm yeah actually that's a good point. Maybe we could try to resurrect that ability?
posted by nikaspark at 5:48 PM on February 3, 2019


Back in my day, we lived in a rolled up newspaper, and we loved it!
posted by Brocktoon at 5:59 PM on February 3, 2019 [19 favorites]


Oh man, yeah. I was very bored very often as a child, and as a result invented insane worlds and stories and all kinds of things. A lot of them were basically fanfiction -- the members of the Babysitters Club were all my friends! I worked on the Enterprise and was besties with the crew! (I was a strange, lonely child.) But I also definitely, clearly, remember creating whole worlds in my backyard, or in my brain if I was in school and needed to sit quietly.

I spent about a year working as a fine arts model which, when working for groups or schools, is kind of professionally being bored. I can still disappear into my own head, but I've definitely lost mindfulness, what with having the internet in my pocket. It's harder for me to do things without a podcast in the background, or some kind of other distracter. I'm trying to work on that, too.

(nebulawindphone, what you describe is basically how I write fanfiction, so. It's re-achievable!)
posted by kalimac at 6:02 PM on February 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


Boredom is what made us put up with shitty TV.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:04 PM on February 3, 2019 [21 favorites]


"Bored to tears" really happens.
posted by serena15221 at 6:06 PM on February 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


I mean maybe this is the ADHD talking but I literally don't understand the concept of boredom unless a) you're sick or b) don't have access to things you enjoy, because I don't think? I've ever been bored in the way the author is talking about? Unless I'm too sick to do the things I enjoy, or being forced not to do them because it's not RESPECTFUL to knit/draw/read during class/church/a party (or I forgot to bring something along, but that was much more rare). If I was at home and not being forced to sit still, I had a neverending list of books I wanted to read, art I wanted to create, stories I wanted to write, crafts I wanted to make (and yes--I was privileged enough to have access to books and paper and pencils and yarn and knitting needles, that is another factor).

I don't think I EVER told my parents "I'm bored" because I never had enough time to do all the things I wanted to do. I was only bored when being dragged away from my books and sketchpad and word processor to sit and listen to my parents read from the Bible or go to the model train exhibit. Boredom, to me, has always been "I am being forcibly kept from things I enjoy" and not "there's nothing to do." There's lots to do! Just let me do it, dammit!
posted by brook horse at 6:08 PM on February 3, 2019 [21 favorites]


Back in my day, we lived in a rolled up newspaper, and we loved it!

At least you HAD a newspaper...
posted by briank at 6:10 PM on February 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


days when my friends and I rode our bikes aimlessly through the neighborhood or made up our own games. No schedules, no scorecards, no uniforms...

Kids today are not allowed to do this. Boredom like this exists only for free range kids with other free range kids around to play with. I'd get arrested if I let my six year old roam about on his own, if he didn't get hit by a car first. I can't even just kick him out into the backyard any more, since all the trees have been lopped to the ground and it's high summer here in Australia and if you haven't been paying attention to the news it's a bit hot-to-lethally-hot out there.

Like we've got kids these days like tigers in tiny enclosures. There's boredom, and then there's torture. We do our best to give the boy as much unstructured, unsupervised device free time as we can muster, but fuck. The walls are close. We've just come off six weeks of summer holidays here and it was fraught, couple of heatwaves, too much lassitude.

And that's even before you get to older kids and the high pressure high stakes schooling they wind up under in high school. All the extra tutoring and activities aren't there to stroke parental egos. It's excruciating and we'd mostly like to just let the kids have time to be you know, kids. It's the whole framework of education trying to scratch out every last second of productivity from them.

Until we can collectively acknowledge that anything less that hothousing kids isn't neglect we're not going to see them have the time to be bored.
posted by Jilder at 6:13 PM on February 3, 2019 [28 favorites]


A phone is to your book what bottomless heroin refills are to a cup of tea.
posted by bonaldi at 9:16 AM on February 4 [6 favorites +] [!]


Do you have any idea how many books there are.

To this day I can chew through yer average paperback in 6 hours with the TV on and I get super uncomfortable without them. The internet is an extended book plus text messaging plus TV delivery to me, always was, and I hit puberty before I had the internet.

I hereby accuse this article of being an old man yelling at clouds.
posted by saysthis at 6:37 PM on February 3, 2019 [15 favorites]


I think Brook Horse nailed it for me: Boredom exists, at least for me, in two contexts: I am being forced to do something which is really un-fun and you're not allowed to read or whatever to pass the time; or being so without energy that while you'd like to do something you simply can't be arsed to get going on that thing.

But being without money and without options for make-your-own entertainment can be pretty bad, too.
posted by maxwelton at 6:38 PM on February 3, 2019 [12 favorites]


My kids get bored. My 8 year old got bored, watched YouTube, and then tried to make slime and this is how I ended up with Tide and white glue mushed into my carpet.

I used to carry two books with me in case I finished one.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:38 PM on February 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


Boredom, or something like it, made me read World Book Encyclopedia from cover to cover... eventually. Also, bike around the neighborhood and occasionally try to be Evil Knievel. Or go down to Radio Shack and get electronic components for projects that don't make sense to me today, though I did once fix a radio (replaced a fried transistor) that, OK, admittedly I also broke in other experiments.

I also grabbed a soldering iron on the wrong end and that may have been what made me a software engineer.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:40 PM on February 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


(nebulawindphone, what you describe is basically how I write fanfiction, so. It's re-achievable!)

I guess it's still how I write music too. I guess I still know how to keep unfinished brainthings, and what I've lost is the habit of curating a whole roster of them so I can be sure I'll never run out.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:55 PM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


An hour or so of paralyzing boredom a week allows you to develop all sorts of internal resources

Hahhaha you Catholics had it so easy with your one-hour services and their sad little five-minute homilies I used to desperately envy. (My parents were Anglicans but they both came from Catholic families, so I had a basis for comparison.)

At least the Book of Common Prayer has some interesting historical documents tucked into the back.
posted by praemunire at 7:36 PM on February 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


I saw a friend's son say "I'm bored!", and my friend said, "[Son], you're in charge of your own boredom."
I was pretty impressed with that. It's like, you can be bored if you want to, but otherwise, you have to figure it out yourself.
I don't remember my own kids' saying that, but that was a long time ago, before DVDs.
posted by MtDewd at 8:12 PM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have to say, without the gift of boredom, i would not have set nearly so many things on fire as i did.
posted by happyroach at 8:47 PM on February 3, 2019 [18 favorites]


I think the point here is less that Boredom Is Good but that an environment in which ameliorating boredom requires some creativity is a good thing. I’ve seen this from both sides, having grown up pre-smartphone and also being the sort of information-addled adult who tends towards solving boredom with hits of Internet. When I muster the will to avoid that drug and just watch the world and think, I nearly always feel better off for it by virtue of letting my mind wander into its own spaces or the spaces around me instead of guiding it towards useless news. It reminds me each time of how much more I made of time to myself before I had some handheld portal to instant satisfaction, and I’m more and more compelled to actively see the world as a result.
posted by invitapriore at 9:09 PM on February 3, 2019 [16 favorites]


Back in my day, we lived in a rolled up newspaper, and we loved it!

kid, when i was your age, i was twelve.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 10:31 PM on February 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


looking at shit on a phone is the most boring thing on earth. kids with Devices at their eyeballs all the time are not losing the ability to cope with boredom. if only. they are losing the ability to mind being bored.

Yes yes YES! We are raising kids who do not know how to be alone with their own thoughts.
Some of my best childhood memories are of days when all I did was read


well, which is it? it can't be both. reading all day is what you do when you want to push out your own thoughts all the way out of your head and replace them with someone else's. all day long, other people's thoughts, that's what books are all about. that's why they're great.

and games & social media can't do that, they're too thin and insubstantial. there just isn't enough of them to fill your head all the way up. they never take the place of your consciousness so you always have to be there with them in the same space at the same time. that's why they're bad.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:35 PM on February 3, 2019 [13 favorites]


I think my takeaway from this is that different people are bound to have different experiences of boredom, so they will naturally have different reactions to this, an article about boredom. Being like “I think I got something out of my childhood boredom!” doesn’t negate the experience of someone who’s like “I read 8 books a day as a child and was literally never bored!” and vice versa.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:40 PM on February 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


In other words, I was frequently bored as a kid, and I think it suited my personality perfectly. I got lots of time to look at clouds and daydream. Other people didn’t have the same experience, and that’s cool, just don’t be all “boredom has no value!” Obviously it means something to some people.

This is one of those articles about kids that really seems more like stuff their parents are frustrated about. Like, I’d have been happy if this was just about how much modern technology inhibits the kind of daydreaming that I did as a kid. I just turn to my phone now, because it’s always right there. I don’t know what kids are missing out on, I know what I’m missing.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:45 PM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


The reason everyone talks about boredom during their childhood is that that is when ameliorating boredom is hard. You have no responsibility, no money, and a limited grasp of the world. I can't get that bored anymore because I have bills AND discretionary income, and also a nigh instantaneous global communications network literally at my fingertips.
posted by axiom at 10:56 PM on February 3, 2019 [6 favorites]


It's weird how the author never asks who benefits from providing this sort of constant stimulation. It's not like it's free for the Facebook to deliver me notifications. Even if other users are providing the underlying events for free, a team of hundreds (thousands?) got paid to scrape, package, and deliver the news. Why?

If boredom is a valuable experience, then we're being robbed, and blamed for it.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:01 PM on February 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Although: "Candy Crushed attention spans." I'm totally going to start saying that like I thought of it myself.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:03 PM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


having to go to mass every Sunday as a child helps to inoculate you against boredom.

If you're bored during mass, you aren't paying attention. People are lining up to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a mind-reading god who knows where all the boogers are wiped.
posted by pracowity at 12:19 AM on February 4, 2019 [11 favorites]


I can't remember the name but there's an Asimov short story about a computer that kept on making errors until the computer technicians 'gave' the computer time each day to 'play' and then it became accurate. Today, as we do not have boredom anymore, I think about this story.
posted by gen at 1:15 AM on February 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


I disagree that we were allowed to be "bored" back in the day. I mean, I have very strong memories that saying "bored" to a parent led to a mandated activity such as the stick picking described above (I still darent think the 'bored' thought as it makes me think I should clean my room. There was also my mother's favourite saying "only boring people get bored" which was both insulting and unhelpful. We were expected to do something that kept us out of the way, they just didn't care if we stared at clouds or threw snails at each other, just so long as no one was yelling 'Ma!!!!!' (And no one got killed, but I feel like the second rule was flexible so long as we died quietly)

We did have much larger chunks of time to fill and that gave us the freedom to make up games and play them over and over or to read heaps of books or to jump on the trampoline for hours while visiting imaginary worlds. Online time definitely goes much faster than non-online time.
posted by kitten magic at 1:19 AM on February 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Praemunire, I was raised Church of England but my parents decided to send me to catholic high school so I had to start going to mass at age 11. OMG the Catholics could be in and out in 45 minutes! No more 90 minutes of slowly dying (I got through by reading carols in the hymn book). I never looked back.
posted by kitten magic at 1:23 AM on February 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


GO PLAY OUTSIDE!
posted by parki at 4:35 AM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I would have fucking loved the internet and Netflix in 1982 are you kidding me.

Another GenXer here who also would have loved them.

However, the thing I did when I didn't have them was start writing. And I realized I was good at it. And then came YouTube and Netflix and....my writing has suffered.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:41 AM on February 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Some of my best childhood memories are of days when all I did was read, or days when my friends and I rode our bikes aimlessly through the neighborhood or made up our own games.

None of that sounds like boredom? All of those things sound entertaining.
posted by Dysk at 5:09 AM on February 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


Like, boredom sucks. It's awful. It can lead us to do fun creative things, but it's the fun creative things that are good, not the boredom itself. Much like food and eating are good, but hunger sucks. Kids should eat better, not be hungry more often. Similarly, we should maybe have better entertainment, more wholesome play, etc, but not actually be bored more.
posted by Dysk at 5:12 AM on February 4, 2019 [7 favorites]


ahahah my orthodox children with their three three hour standing services on Sunday are side-eyeing yours. My youngest calls her weekly Methodist school chapel time "daydream hour".

Boredom is as useful as a blank sheet of paper. You can start with prompts and outlines and guidelines, but a totally blank sheet of paper is the most freeing to create within.

A friend and I are currently refusing to schedule additional activities after school for our kids on weekends so they have periods where they are actively bored. We are both getting some pushback for not doing more from our peer parents.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:26 AM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Similarly, we should maybe have better entertainment, more wholesome play, etc, but not actually be bored more.

But that's just it - a lot of times this "better entertainment" and this "wholesome play" happens because the kids get bored enough to think it up all on their own, or because the quick-fix boredom-reliever isn't there.

There was a scene from a Simpsons episode when they tried making Itchy and Scratchy nice, and all the kids in Springfield thought it sucked - so they decided to go outside. The segment maybe depicts things a little too idyllically, but the idea is definitely that "this is all only happening because the convenient go-to entertainment isn't there any more and the kids are bored". (I remember the next scene after that clip has a scene with the Simpsons having dinner and Bart and Lisa are excitedly telling their parents about games of tag and hide-and-seek from earlier that day, and then Bart urging Lisa to hurry up with dinner so they can work on their boxcar racers before the sun sets.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:48 AM on February 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


Some of my best childhood memories are of days when all I did was read, or days when my friends and I rode our bikes aimlessly through the neighborhood or made up our own games.
My point here was that I was allowed (and learned how)to make my own entertainment to keep from being bored. It seems to me that so many kids today are shuffled from one scheduled activity to another and they aren’t given the chance to learn to make their own decisions on how to spend their free time.
posted by bookmammal at 5:49 AM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that so many kids today are shuffled from one scheduled activity to another and they aren’t given the chance to learn to make their own decisions on how to spend their free time.

This is highly location and class dependent.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:04 AM on February 4, 2019 [16 favorites]


Also, my only child would be way less bored if the neighbors with the similar-aged children didn't spend alllll day Sunday boring their own children at church.

We've found that the problem our kid has is he's got too many options and he gets addled trying to navigate the paradox of choice. We've started making to-do lists for the weekends where there's a mix of things he has to do (clean his room, practice his instrument, do his homework, read a book--he is not a natural book-lover, alas) and just a general menu of other projects and activities. As an only, he can think of 1000 ways to not be bored, but 995 of them involve making a parent bored, so we have to curate his menu a little bit.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:12 AM on February 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


But that's just it - a lot of times this "better entertainment" and this "wholesome play" happens because the kids get bored enough to think it up all on their own, or because the quick-fix boredom-reliever isn't there.

The wholesome play is a quick-fix boredom reliever! The creativity and self-directed entertainment is good, but neither is nor requires boredom. "Boredom is good" makes about as much sense as "being hungry is good". Maybe kids would be both hungry more often, and eating better if we got rid of McDonald's, just like kids might be me bored and play outside more if we got rid of smartphones. In both cases though, it's eating better/playing outside that's good, but hunger and boredom, and the problem is smartphones/McDonald's, not the lack of boredom. Like, people here aren't even arguing for kids to be bored, really - they're conflating activities alleviating boredom with boredom itself. They're not the same! Reading books and playing outside are awsome, but the times when kids are bored is when they can't do those things. And that is not something anyone should wish in anyone else.
posted by Dysk at 6:17 AM on February 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Like, this whole thing is "we need better go-to boredom relief" but people keep presenting it as "kids should be more bored" then sketching out their vision of fun.
posted by Dysk at 6:19 AM on February 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

My favorite take on the intersection of boredom and white-collar office work. It's not the 80's any more, but goddamn have I been able to keep myself steadily employed for a long time by learning how to stave off boredom without looking bored.
posted by Mayor West at 6:48 AM on February 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


This article makes an important point but underneath there's something else happening. Boredom becomes becomes someone's fault. There's a morality in it. We can argue it's the parent's fault or the child's fault or society's fault. Or that the fault lies in whether it's tolerated or how or whether it's communicated to someone else or transformed into rainbows or failed rainbows, or replaced with prepackaged rainbows.

So, I just wanna say that it's not my fault.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:16 AM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


As an only, he can think of 1000 ways to not be bored, but 995 of them involve making a parent bored, so we have to curate his menu a little bit.

Jesus, yes. When my kid complains that he's bored, what he really means is that he doesn't feel like entertaining himself or that he wants company. I will only accept "I'm bored" as a real condition if he's already been playing by himself for at least 30 minutes.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 8:15 AM on February 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


GO PLAY OUTSIDE!

it's -40 out
posted by ODiV at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


It's not the 80's any more, but goddamn have I been able to keep myself steadily employed for a long time by learning how to stave off boredom without looking bored.

I'd agree with that statement wholeheartedly. Once I (re)discovered my surprising ability to do data entry & collate various data from random sources accurately and relatively quickly (a skill derived from creating my own RPG systems as a kid from disparate sources when needing entertainment), has saved me more than once. For me boredom as a kid was similar to the experience of Brook Horse & maxwelton, being placed into situations where my freedom and/or behaviour were seriously curtailed. Like when I had chicken pox as a young adult and all I could do was think about not itching, have baths and sleep. Or when I was a kid and one summer a friend of my mother's, a much older woman, took us to "see the sights" but instead took us to nearly abandoned suburban industrial parks to look at discounted women's clothing.

The idea of boredom and kids always seems intensely charged. I'll echo Obscure Reference above here, that there's a moral component of being bored that at times is toxic. Maybe it comes from Capitalism? In anycase I think the experience of boredom, in whatever way you define it for yourself, is an aspect of being human and our big stupid self-aware brains. You try to entertain it away but it's always there.

GO PLAY OUTSIDE!

it's -40 out


Maybe its a Northern thing but we went outside all the time no matter how cold. You just got to be dressed for it.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:25 AM on February 4, 2019


How North is North? I'm above the 60th and when it gets down to below -30C, no thanks.
posted by ODiV at 9:43 AM on February 4, 2019


Ha! You're more North than I was but when we were kids we'd regularly go out in -20C o -30C in our balaclavas and skidoo suits. Always lots to do - Ice fishing, tobogganing, skidooing, snow shoeing, skating, epic snowball fights/forts. I'm strictly talking when I was a kid - now not as much but I still love walking to work in -30C, YMMV.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:53 AM on February 4, 2019


Maybe kids would be both hungry more often, and eating better if we got rid of McDonald's, just like kids might be me bored and play outside more if we got rid of smartphones. In both cases though, it's eating better/playing outside that's good, but hunger and boredom, and the problem is smartphones/McDonald's, not the lack of boredom. Like, people here aren't even arguing for kids to be bored, really - they're conflating activities alleviating boredom with boredom itself. They're not the same! Reading books and playing outside are awsome, but the times when kids are bored is when they can't do those things.

We agree that "the problem is smartphones", but it sounds like I'm seeing that "no smartphones means kids are bored for a little while which makes them turn to other things", while you're seeing "take away the smartphone and the kids will naturally just reach for a book instead" without addressing what MAKES them reach for a book. It almost sounds like you're taking an Underpants Gnomes approach and jumping direct from "remove the smartphones" to "wholesome entertainment" without addressing the intervening phase 2. Which is - boredom.

Perhaps referring to phase 2 as "downtime" instead would be better, would you agree with the theory then? I think it actually is a better term for what the article is getting at, actually.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:57 AM on February 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


To expand a bit on my reaction, "the lost age of underparenting" just has been really sticking in my craw since I read this this morning. I lived in the lost age of underparenting.

Pros of the "lost era of underparenting:"
- parents did not give a shit what my inner life was as long as I did not embarass them. This did not help me out despite all the ABC afterschool specials.
- learned self-reliance
- was outdoors a lot
- went to boring elementary school where I learned to cope with boredom by zoning out and hiding in the library, apparently a marker for success in cubicle world?

Cons of the "lost era of underparenting:"
- Self-reliance turned into anxious behaviour where it took me 25 years to learn I could ask for help and be taken seriously
- Got robbed of treats and allowance, beaten up, and bullied as children on their own often devolve into wolf packs
- Learned to space out rather than pay attention, stayed in bad jobs due to this ability. Believed my life should run like an ABC Afterschool Special.
- Still angry at boys that pulled my pants down
- Got frostbitten toes due to wetting my snowpants, which went down into my boots, because my parents decided I should play outdoors

I'm sorry but this bullshit opinion in the New York Times is based on nothing but nostalgia and privilege.

I am indeed skeptical of how companies try to engage my kids on their devices, and I have had terms where the activity schedule was overloaded.

But I'm not sure how any of this relates to the idea that kids today are "never bored" and where the evidence is that they are worse off than us under-studied Gen-X parents, the original "latchkey kids."

Lots has changed that impacts on how privileged people parent their kids. There do seem to be more activities today in some ways although when I was growing up I did swimming, piano, ballet, and Pioneer girls; it's just that I had to get myself to those things. My kids do martial arts, swimming, and art classes. What's changed is that where I was sometimes on my own, sometimes with my SAHM, my kids up to about grade 5 were/are in after school care, because my husband and I both work, and so their hanging out with other kids is in a group care setting and not outside in a park.

On weekends my kids do spend time outside, they get bored, and while we mildly limit their screen time they do have options to play Minecraft or watch some YouTube and I do have mixed feelings about that. But my sister and I were watching Three's Company and soap operas as well as Gilligan's Island reruns, as well as reading Sweet Valley High, so it's not like our minds were being fed only the most beautiful of art.

Their teachers may try a bit harder to engage them, or they may not, but they still find school boring a good chunk of the time. So I guess they will succeed in corporate life?

The point is, this article is just as stupid as the anti-avocado-toast ones.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:25 AM on February 4, 2019 [9 favorites]


"being hungry is good"

Nobody would say that being in pain is good, but people that are born without the ability to experience pain usually die pretty young for obvious reasons. Your brain needs those intuitive inputs to learn how to survive and prosper, and without them it can't really do things like distinguish between hot stovetops and everything else. So, I'm going to go ahead and say that being hungry might not be good, but hunger as a feedback mechanism is, as is pain, as is boredom.
posted by invitapriore at 12:04 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


We agree that "the problem is smartphones", but it sounds like I'm seeing that "no smartphones means kids are bored for a little while which makes them turn to other things", while you're seeing "take away the smartphone and the kids will naturally just reach for a book instead" without addressing what MAKES them reach for a book. It almost sounds like you're taking an Underpants Gnomes approach and jumping direct from "remove the smartphones" to "wholesome entertainment" without addressing the intervening phase 2. Which is - boredom.

I see the step two that makes the kid reach for the book as not wanting to be bored. Which is the same thing that makes them reach for the smartphone. Wanting kids to be more bored looks - from his perspective - like not wanting the kids to have anything to reach for. But I guess that's not how others are reading this?
posted by Dysk at 12:08 PM on February 4, 2019


Ha! You're more North than I was but when we were kids we'd regularly go out in -20C o -30C in our balaclavas and skidoo suits. Always lots to do - Ice fishing, tobogganing, skidooing, snow shoeing, skating, epic snowball fights/forts. I'm strictly talking when I was a kid - now not as much but I still love walking to work in -30C, YMMV.

We used to dig caves in the snowdrifts and spray the insides with water so the walls would freeze up and not collapse. Well, not as often. And we had a long driveway that slanted down from the barn doors to the road. When it froze over, we'd take our metal-runner sleds (which were much older than we were and were about five seconds from falling apart at any given time) and speed all the way down. The key was to swerve into the ditch at the last minute.

We spent a lot of the winter recovering in front of shitty TV.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I see the step two that makes the kid reach for the book as not wanting to be bored. Which is the same thing that makes them reach for the smartphone.

Exactly. The thing that makes the kid reach for the book is not wanting to be bored. But for the kid want to shed boredom, they have to first be bored. You can't be motivated to not be bored unless you are in a state of boredom, however brief it is.

Wanting kids to be more bored looks - from his perspective - like not wanting the kids to have anything to reach for. But I guess that's not how others are reading this?

That's part of why I was suggesting "downtime" as a replacement for "boredom". The essay is getting more at a tendency to have something scheduled for every single last jot and tittle and waking moment of a child's life these days - in effect, instead of just taking away the smartphone and letting the kid decide to reach for a book instead, it's more like "I'm taking away your smartphone and immediately replacing it with Harry Potter, but you only have a half hour of that before I'm taking it back out of your hands and pushing you through the door of a ballet studio, where you'll be for an hour and then I am immediately taking you from there to a French class, and..."

You know? The kid never learns to decide for themselves what they want to do. People aren't advocating "boredom" as some kind of Dickensian thing; they're suggesting more like, back off from trying to 'engage' your kid constantly and give them a little thinking room to make up their own minds about what they want to do. That very act of "I have nothing to do, I need to decide something to do to amuse myself" is a life skill, and it is one that can be learned through practice. 95% of the time people stumble upon something like music or books and go with that. Or they go with TV. Sometimes they stumble on weird hobbies like stamp collecting or geocaching or whatever. But they only come to that point if they've been given a little time for self-reflection about "I'm a little bored, what do I want to do about that?"

No one's talking about taking fun away from kids. This is more about how the very idea of boredom has become so anathema that parents and teachers over-compensate by turning themselves into damn cruise directors and pushing all this entertainment on them and never letting the kid have a chance to think up an idea on their own for something to do. This is more about "it is okay for your kid to be bored for a half hour in between softball practice and dinner, you don't have to go out of your way to arrange a play date for them to fill the time." The decision for how to fill that time can - and arguably should - be placed back on the kid.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:37 PM on February 4, 2019 [13 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos—you just PERFECTLY described what I was trying to articulate!
posted by bookmammal at 1:00 PM on February 4, 2019


I thought the article articulated it pretty well too. The author pretty clearly says "this is not about some kind of Victorian morals" or something along those lines.

Everyone keeps talking past each other on this. If you're in the anti- camp, maybe positive reactions to this make more sense if you don't imagine that people are trying to talk up the moral value of bringing pain to kids. I was a latchkey kid, too, which is why I had so much time to myself -- I mean, hours by myself every day throughout my childhood. I just wish people could respond to this kind of thing without making sweeping pronouncements about the kind of person who approves of it. It's not privilege, it's just a different perspective.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:34 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's not about approval. It's about the assumption that parents are [doing illogical thing, like Fearing Boredom] when really it's a problem that runs far beyond individual parenting choices.

Like, I don't think too many parents are worried that their kids Will Be Bored.

I think there are tons of parents who are either struggling with working long hours and exhausted, so they let their kids, kids who may also be struggling with a lot of different things, hang out online or on Netflix/YouTube/Candy Crush.

I also think there are also parents who are overscheduling their kids for complex reasons which come down to 1. needing daycare or activities because they themselves are having to work long hours or 2. experiencing legitimate class anxiety that their kids will be left behind in a Winner Take All society. Which manifests in strange ways.

Here's an example: My son asked me to sign him up for Lego Robotics camp. I said no, you can stay home and play with our first-generation Mindstorm Legos. So he did. Then he tried out (I am not making this up) for Lego Robotics club and he did not make the team.

So I get full marks for letting my child be bored with Lego, but he doesn't make the Lego Robotics team, decides he's not one of the STEM-bound children, and decides he's going to be a YouTube star, not a robot designer. I mean...this really happened.

This is why I froth at the mouth at these baseless articles. First, we don't know which "kids today" are going to have the skills to survive the climate apocalypse/be chosen to colonize Mars/save the world through their YouTube channel. Second, it assumes that parents are behaving independently of the systems in which they are operating reasonably logically just because Parents Today Suck, M I RITE?

Third, it always seems to be the case that the best parenting took place in the era in which women were not welcome in the workplace once they got pregnant, hmmmmm, with a side of that period of time when they started to go back to work and had housework strikes and the kids of my generation were left to raise themselves by ABC Afterschool Special which, you know, I don't think I turned out that badly but if my generation's parenting situation was optimal...I weep, I weep.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:43 PM on February 4, 2019 [7 favorites]


Also, where are the schools where kids are never bored? Asking for a friend. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 2:47 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Second, it assumes that parents are behaving independently of the systems in which they are operating reasonably logically just because Parents Today Suck, M I RITE?

I get where you're coming from, I just think you're misunderstanding me and probably other people too. I don't think parents have an illogical fear of boredom, I've just seen firsthand how much pressure there is on parents to maximize kids time, all the time. Like, realistically, I don't know any parents who keep their kids busy all day every day. But there's SO MUCH stuff out there that talks about what your kid could be capable if you just enroll in this or that, with the not-so-subtle implication that you're robbing them of their full potential if you don't pack their schedules. I mean, yeah, parents have their hands full, but this goes way beyond that -- like, it's not just about daycare or letting them entertain themselves while you rest, there's all this stuff about what kind of daycare matters, and how play can be maximized for gains in intelligence. It's like every minute of their day counts towards their future in this tense way. I can definitely see how the idea of boredom might seem like yet another thing parents are doing wrong, so I get it. But the article read to me like criticism of that social pressure, rather than the parents themselves.

This is why I wish this hadn't been framed around kids. I think our attitudes regarding downtime have shifted in the last few decades. I think the modern corporate, ad-driven internet being readily at hand 24/7 is a problem for everyone, not just kids (although I worry about the weird world of kids YouTube content). I wish this could have been more about boredom and downtime in general, rather than about how important these things are for kids; because honestly, that's the weakest argument this article makes, and then it ends up being mostly an argument about parenting. I don't think kids need to learn about boredom, or whatever, but I think it's worth asking how every one of us, kids included, spends our free time.

So that's where I'm coming from with this. None of it read to me as criticism of parents, but as criticism of society-wide attitudes towards kids, and towards the idea of downtime in general.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:46 PM on February 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Look, you want kids to be bored? That's easy; just set your teens or pre-teens down in the couch, and start talking to them about how things were when you were a kid. Maybe add in some stories about relatives they've never met.

I guarantee you, within 30 seconds their expressions will let you know exactly how bored they are.
posted by happyroach at 3:50 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yeah, like kitten magic and others, I've flipped thru a pile of hymn books in my time. I dunno if it made me better or worse, I think the overall effect was neutral. Does some experience with boredom help people deal with impatience? Maybe?
posted by ovvl at 4:37 PM on February 4, 2019


On one hand, yeah, boredom as an impetus to do something is legit.
On the other, as a grown-arse UK-based adult with a fairly fixed rotation of 10-20 games, apps and websites to keep him 24/7 smartphone satiated, I can reliably report that come the languors of Thanksween, Supergiving and the Hallobowl I find my entertainments undeniably constrained and myself looking around for new stimulus. Can't imagine how kid-me would have dealt with the same (reading a Doctor Who novelisation while spending 3.5 minutes loading a game he realised was already bored of and moving onto loading the next one perhaps).
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 6:44 PM on February 4, 2019


When I was a kid I could be entranced by drying mud.The only times I was ever bored was in church.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:24 AM on February 5, 2019


I'm in the We're-Way-Too-Diverted-All-The-Time camp. The boredom isn't the good thing. It's the wanting to be relieved of boredom that is the good thing and the actions taken to address the want.

Developing a capacity to tolerate a certain amount of boredom is valuable. (Meditation anybody?) And coming up with some hand-rolled, artisanal solutions to one's boredom is also valuable. Neither of these capacities has a chance if your first move in any non-entertained moment is to reach for your smartphone...which - full disclosure - I'm always tempted to do.
posted by kaymac at 10:04 AM on February 5, 2019


Sometimes I find that well-meaning people project their ideas of what poverty is like on these discussions. I grew up in a pretty financially challenged environment, and I encountered my boredom within that. I encountered when I had to go to work with my mom when I was sick because there was no other child care. When I rode in the car with her and waited in the waiting rooms on every errand, doctor appointment, and DMV renewal, because no other child care. When I sat at the laundromat waiting for the laundry to dry and flipping through magazines totally not designed for a child (and developed a lifelong love of magazines). When we waited to pick one of my parents up at their night school class. I wasn't unprogrammed because I had a luxurious life at home with a parent baking cookies in quiet afternoons, but because what financial struggle often looks like is a lot of waiting around and a lot of doubling up when you have something to do for one person that doesn't involve everyone. So before assuming downtime = privilege, perhaps consult the lived experience of those who had, and have, downtime but not privilege.
posted by Miko at 10:32 AM on February 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


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