This summer break, grant your children the gift of boredom
I still remember the giddy joy I felt as I made my way home after the last day of school before the summer holidays began. True, there was a ton of ‘holiday homework’ weighing down my knapsack, but even that was not enough to dampen my spirits that soared sky-high as I contemplated the month-long break that lay ahead of me.
There were four – yes, count them, four! – whole delicious weeks in which I could do as I pleased. I could stay up late at night, reading my favourite mystery novels. I could get up when I pleased and have a leisurely breakfast. I could spend the entire afternoon getting up to no good at with my neighbourhood friends. I could visit the Botanical Gardens or the zoo (as you can probably tell, I grew up in Calcutta) and deepen my acquaintance with the natural world. I could station myself in my favourite lending library until I practically blended in with the furniture.
But most important of all, I would have all the time in the world to do nothing at all: to remain absolutely idle; to just sit around and daydream; to let my mind wander where it would; and yes, on occasion, get utterly and thoroughly bored.
Looking back now, I realize that that was the most precious gift of all: the opportunity to court boredom, and to learn to cope with it.
And learn to cope with it I did. Sometimes it was by inventing unlikely scenarios in which my future adult self would save the world. Sometimes it was by exploring deep in the recesses of my mother and sister’s wardrobes to play dress-up with their glamorous, grown-up clothes. Sometimes it was by badgering my grandmother or grandfather to play Ludo with me. And sometimes it was by press-ganging my father to watch the latest dance moves I had learnt from the last Hindi movie I saw (no, we didn’t call it Bollywood in those innocent days).
In retrospect, I must confess that boredom and learning to deal with it made me a better person. It helped me develop interpersonal skills (you have no idea what tough negotiators my grandparents were), which came in useful in later life. It helped me discover those inner resources lurking within me that would have remained buried forever if it hadn’t been for those dull-as-ditchwater afternoons. Boredom taught me both to spend time with myself (without always looking for external stimuli) even as it helped me build up my social skills.
So much so, that I often wonder if I would have, in fact, become a writer (of sorts) if it hadn’t been for those enforced periods of boredom in which I had only my imagination with which to entertain and regale myself. Somehow, I think not.
Which is why I am often troubled by the fact that the generations that came after me seem to be raising children who don’t quite know what to do with themselves when – and if – they are granted any downtime. Kids of today have become so used to being ferried from tennis lesson to maths tuition to dance classes, or even special ‘learning camps’ during the summer, that they seem to be at a complete loss when left to their own devices. Or, more accurately, when the devices (smartphones, tablets, game stations, and whatever else they are into these days) they rely on so completely are denied to them.
And, in my view at least, that is a terrible thing. The best way to help children develop their imagination or to create any sort of inner life is to leave them on their own for a bit, without a structured activity to participate in or an electronic scene to gaze into. It is imperative to allow them some breathing space so that they can hear themselves think. And more important, to leave a fallow field on which they can plant their own imaginary seeds, without any help from the significant adults in their lives.
There will be challenges. And yes, there will be pushback. And there will be times when your child – used to being overscheduled to within an inch of his/her life – comes crying to you with that eternal complaint of all kids: “I’m bored!”
And when that happens, I would suggest you respond the way my mother did all those decades ago. “Good,” she would say, with quiet triumph. “Now go and find something to do.”
And you know what? I did. And I was much better off for it.
So, this summer break, instead of booking some insanely overpriced camp, or organizing a series of outings for your kids, or even signing them up for endless classes, give them (and yourself) a break. And instead of endless, organized, enforced activity, grant your children the gift of boredom. They may complain for a day or two, but a couple of years – decades even – down the line, they will thank you for it.
I certainly do.