Thursday, 18 April 2013

Muuuuuuum....I'm bored!

I have particular memories from my childhood of being bored - bored enough to brave my mother, who made short shrift of any complaints by briskly telling me to find something to do or she'd give me a job. My godmother, with whom we spent countless weekends and holidays on her ten acres of land, was wont to inform us with devastating matter of factness from her lofty 6"2' should we be silly enough to complain to her of boredom, that only boring people were bored...and then she'd just stare at us suggestively, which usually prompted us to scuttle off with our tails between our legs! 

I visited similar techniques on my boys - and they learned pretty early that if they couldn't occupy themselves during after school time (once homework had been dealt with) or the weekends that I would find them things to do. Not surprisingly, dishes, car washing, weeding, hanging out washing, etc, didn't really appeal to them... They were both highly creative, and could often then be found building great Lego edifices, complex road systems for matchbox cars, playing board games with friends, and other good old fashioned past-times. No.2 also loved to bake, and I have a number of recipes in my collection that have been specifically written out for him to cater for his reading and comprehension levels at various ages so he could be left to his own devices, because if he was going to make muffins, then HE was going to make them - not help me with the odd stir or adding in of ingredients. 

We didn't have a computer until I was doing my post grad university - No.1 was in his final year of high school by then. The Ex bought him, over my vigorous protests, a Nintendo for his ninth birthday. A few years later, it had become the basis for levels of aggro that were constant: rows over whose turn it was; rows about turns taking too long; rows because someone had cheated; tearful angst about losing; tantrums because I limited their time playing on it; tantrums because the 'stupid Nintendo' cheated (!); and so had become the machine that dominated all the time they weren't at school or otherwise occupied. So one visit to The Ex, when of course it had to be packed up and taken along with clothes and other stuff, I told him not to bring it back, or I'd bin it. I was quite unpopular for some weeks after this, until they gradually drifted back to the myriad other activities they habitually amused themselves with, and relative peace reigned again.

Did they get bored? Of course they did - just as I had before them, and countless generations of children before them. Was that a bad thing - bearing in mind that, at the time of writing, very few children have time to even consider the concept of being bored, poor overscheduled little grubs that many of them are... No, I don't think it was. What being bored did for my children and those of us that remember it, was throw them back on their own resources. For me, as a child, it meant I spent time reading, drawing, writing, creating mad fantasy worlds with toys and building cubbies - inside if the weather was bad, and outside if fine. Interpersonal skills got developed as we headed out into our street to find other kids to play with so the games could be bigger and more exciting. My boys did the same. 
These days, with so much scheduled activity it is less likely that children have much time to get bored - between different afterschool classes, sports, tutoring, and so on, a child's day can look infinitely busier than some working adults, which is a pretty scary concept. Learning to manage time, to manage activities, to foster creative time, and to cultivate those moments when there is nothing pressing to do and you can just BE requires time that isn't scheduled. Time to be bored. Time to have to reflect back to the self and say, well now, what am I going to do with this time that I have available? Maybe an opportunity to find mum and ask if she's free to do a little cooking, or play a game, or similar with a sibling - which will require utilising developing negotiation skills if the other person is busy, and require patience if the requested activity is possible but not just right then and the child has to wait a while. Then again, perhaps everyone else is already occupied and that means the child has an opportunity to sit with it, deal with the initial frustration, be gently nudged to books, paper and pencils, other toys, or even a quiet lie down to just daydream a bit... If this is the norm, it won't be long before the child has found something to do and may even find, to their surprise and yours, that they're quite happy.

We start the rot when we park them in front of the TV to keep them out of our hair at times when we feel we need to be able to focus on what we're doing. I understand the motivation - I did it myself in moments of desperation. But if we start offering them that kind of instant gratification at an age when they lack discernment, then we're effectively spoonfeeding them for our own convenience and, at the same time, depriving them of the opportunity to learn to work it out for themselves. 
I was at the Sydney Fish Markets this morning and there was a large family sitting down to eat. This is not a long drawn out process at the Fish Markets. People buy from the stalls, and park wherever they can find a seat, and scoff down wonderful fresh seafood, then pack up and go... So why was the toddler with this family needing to be parked in front of an iPad with a children's tv show on? The place is a teaming mass of humanity, wonderful colours and smells, stuff coming and going constantly - it's a visual as well as a gastronomic feast - and this little child was experiencing none of it. I see it all the time - kids with their parent's devices being babysat out in public - never learning to BE in public situations, and learn to watch and enjoy being out and about as an activity in itself. I see so many cars being sold now with built in DVD players - why? As a kid in the back seat of a car doing the trek between country South Australia and Sydney annually, as well as countless other road trips, we didn't have all that - and that the technology didn't exist is irrelevant; knowing my mother, we'd not have had it anyway. Instead, she made a pack for us just before each trip. Mine - my brother's had some slightly different goodies - always had a brand new novel, a new activity book and pack of gleaming new coloured pencils; a new blank sketch book and drawing pencils, little packets of sultanas and nuts (which were expected to last) and, if I was really lucky, a new travelling version of a traditional game - we had travelling everything...Scrabble, chess, drafts, battleships and so on. We also had an always growing repertoire of games to play in the car - and my kids grew to love Mum's number plate game where you have to come up with a slogan about the driver in front based on the letters on their number plates. My kids and I also accumulated a selection of songs and had mad sessions of things like There's a hole in the bucket and all sorts of corrupted nursery rhymes!

And what prompted this particular post? There's usually an article or some event that generates my posts on this blog - as my regular readers will know. In this case, it was an article in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, which you can read HERE. There are some important points made in the article about the benefits of allowing children more free and unstructured time than they often get these days, as well as some of the issues that may arise when they're over-scheduled.

It's school holidays in lots of Australian states at the moment - so how about having some time when there isn't an activity planned... Give yourself a holiday as well as the kids. Tell them it's THEIR holiday and ask them what they're going to do when they can be at home all day and not have to be at school and all the other things that keep them busy during term time. See how it flies!