“Mom, I’m bored!” my brothers and I would occasionally whine. But only occasionally. Boredom meant mom would “give us something to do” and that seldom meant something we liked. It was far more fun to find things to do without asking mom to intervene. I remember long, lazy summer days with nothing concrete to do. I remember weekends with wide open days where bikes were crashed on the lawn, my hands smelled of the warm rubber basketball, and grass stains colored my knees— pants or naked skin, depending on the season.
My mom would be sitting at the kitchen table, illuminated by her sewing machine light and the eerily comforting pale-green sunlight filtered through the ruffled translucent eves shading our back patio. She would have the phone cradled between her cheek and shoulder, talking with my various aunts about the latest family drama, while shoving calico and rickrack though her humming needle. The windows were always open, and the breeze carried the tangy and sweet scent of fruit— plums, apricots, tangerines and oranges— floating in from the backyard. Some days the breeze carried the pungent scent of the tomatoes being packed down by the bay at the Libby cannery.
“Go outside and play,” she would stage-whisper over the phone, and shoo me away, shoving more rickrack through and snipping threads with her scissors. So many memories of my mother involve thread, fabric, and her always-busy hands making things.
There were no coordinated practices, no organized play dates, no schedule divided into 15-minute increments to keep everyone on-task or focused on being somewhere or doing something. There’s been a lot of ink devoted lately to free-range parenting; the natural backlash against the modern tendency toward over-structured and over-scheduled and sleep-deprived kids. For me, and maybe for a lot of you, this wasn’t a trend- it was just growing up. It was life.
I’ve noticed, with my own kids, that while I don’t schedule their free time out of existence and I carefully keep the margins of their young lives open and unstructured, they are still far more accustomed to being entertained than I ever was. While my mom had her sewing machine and the telephone- twisted, curling, stretched out tether keeping her in the kitchen- I didn’t have anything. That was grown up stuff. I went outside to play.
Today, I have my computer and a phone— which is better than anything Gene Roddenberry imagined 50 years ago— and my kids have devices that I couldn’t even have dreamed up when I was eight, or eleven, or thirteen. There are kindles with wifi, laptop computers, and personal, pocket-held video games. My teenage son has a phone my mom gave him for Christmas. It doesn’t have service, but it’s got wifi and he can text me from school, and it does everything a computer can do. When my kids burst through the door after walking home from school, they grab a snack and immediately open their screens.
This is a reality of modern life. I’m no luddite, and frankly, I make my living by keeping my finger on the electronic pulse of what’s happening through electronic tethers. I don’t have any desire to take these modern marvels and methods of connection from my kids. They can FaceTime with their grandparents and their cousins, they can do homework and submit it, they can play games with friends in other states, they can research science fair projects and watch the live feed from NASA. These are good things.
But sometimes… I want to hear “Mom, I’m bored.”
Creativity happens when there is room to be bored. When we are not entertained, not distracted by screens showing giving us infinite images of beautiful things, interesting things, fascinating things- our minds have room to actually turn on. When we are not rushing from one lesson to another practice, to another meeting or appointment, there is room to breathe. Being bored is where thinking actually starts. Sit in the stillness. Sit in the quiet. Let your mind wind down, and see where it takes you. Ideas germinate in boredom.
How do I encourage my kids to take advantage of the beautiful margins of their lives? To not fill all the space with stuff? I make them be bored.
Turning off the screens— ALL the screens— sending them out to play without direction or micromanaging… leads to that wonderful refrain. But shortly, a magical thing happens. And it always happens. When they have nothing to entertain them, suddenly they start imagining. Suddenly, I hear games being invented, laughter from the backyard, bikes being hauled to the porch, giggling voices teasing each other as they try and manage the tire-pump themselves. I hear “Mom, we’re going to play basketball!” and I will holler back to please put a coat on… and that’s it. Basketball will turn into a game of tag, and tag will lead to finding a cool hole in a tree and discovering a stick bug, and that will lead to making a small fort and habitat for the captured bug. And that will lead to lifting stones and rocks in search of more bugs, which sometimes leads to finding a lizard or frog. And so it goes. It’s a beautiful thing, and suddenly, they aren’t bored anymore.
I let them walk to and from school. It’s good for them. They have that window each day, where they are responsible and independent- the window between School and Home, which belongs only to them. When the door crashes open, they are always happy to be home, and they also usually have something to report- they observe. They see and feel the seasons changing. They know who got a new bike, and which neighbor kids also walk. They know who got a new kitchen sink, because on trash day, that house had cool debris out at the curb. They report on cool yards they pass, and which house has the best climbing tree. They also have been astoundingly responsible and never yet blown through the window in which I expect them home. They have not only lived up to the rules I set down, they have surpassed them. They never could have done that had I not allowed them the space to do so.
And that’s been my biggest takeaway from giving them room to be bored: They really are amazing human beings. Kids can do so much, and the beautiful thing about giving them room to expand is that they then own their own accomplishments. They didn’t do or achieve anything because I was driving them, hovering, or managing all of their time. They did it because of themselves. That kind of accomplishment is priceless. That kind of trust in each other is beyond priceless.
Boredom is where the future is born.