Monday, April 20, 2020

"I'm Bored"

When I was a boy I would say, "I'm bored," and mom would answer, "Only boring people get bored." If I persisted, she would start listing household chores I could do. It was an infuriating response, even as I got her point, which was, essentially, Well, then do something about it.

Those of us in the play-based education world value boredom. Modern parenting would have a child's boredom be a sign of dereliction of duty, one to be filled with scripted activities, but play-based educators know that experiencing boredom is essential. It is by living with the tedium and "grayness" of boredom that we begin to notice the little things that otherwise pass us by, it is the void through which our thoughts can wander into new and unexpected tributaries, and it teaches us that we're going to have to get constructive to overcome it. Boredom is how we turn rocks, leaves, and trees into knights, princesses, and castles. Boredom is the medium in which new and surprising connections are made, it's how resourcefulness is learned, and, ultimately, it's through boredom that we discover who we are.

I hope that this period of closed schools, playgrounds, toy stores, and cancelled extracurricular actives is teaching parents this lesson. I pity those who feel that, in the name of good parenting and homeschool teaching, they must drop what their doing every time their children complain, "I'm bored." That must add an extra level of stress to what is already an incredibly stressful time. When parents ask me, what to do about their bored child, I tell them to acknowledge their boredom, but to otherwise stay out of it. For instance, say, "You do seem bored," then leave them to mope. Let them stare out the window. And whatever you do, be careful of unsolicited advice. That's all too often an invitation to an argument, one of the least constructive ways to deal with boredom. And even if they do solicit your ideas, don't feel you have to offer yourself up as a playmate.

There will be tears anyway, even anger at you for not saving them, but modern children are not as accustomed to boredom as children of previous generations. Our contemporary culture of over-parenting has done that. But eventually, with time and practice, they will get it the way children have since the beginning of children.

I'm writing about boredom because I myself have been bored. I know it sounds like a childish complaint coming against this backdrop of suffering and fear, but even when there is plenty for me to be doing, even when our gorgeous spring is offering the brightest of blue skies, even when I have my family around me, I am daily finding myself at a loss as the weekdays have all become Thisday or Thatday instead of Monday or Tuesday. I'm feeling it as a kind of rollercoaster of anguish and numbness. I have these sudden urges to break things and shout. There are parts of my days that seem so impossibly long that I could swear that time has come to a stand still. Then when I look back on the day from my too early bedtime, it disappears in a smudge of gray sameness. I don't feel this way all the time, of course, but it's a presence that's with me during some part of every day. I bring this up because I know I'm not alone.

When the histories of plagues are written they tend to focus on the fear, suffering and dying, horrible things, but far from boring. But here I am, day after day, making a study of my boredom. This is how children feel when they say, "I'm bored." We too often dismiss boredom in our day-to-day lives, belittling it with comments like, "At least you're not starving," or "Only boring people get bored." As a play-based educator, I've gotten into the habit of thinking of boredom as a necessary, even positive state for children, but I'm seeing now that I've neglected to really empathize. Boredom is not an easy state of being. It can be unbearable, fraught, and endless. Crying, whining, even tantrums are natural responses, ones I've experienced myself these last few weeks.

So while it's not our job to "solve" our children's boredom, it is our job to help them when it becomes too much, when they simply need to know they are heard, that we understand, and that we are there with them. Boredom is good for us, but like exercising our bodies our intellect or our souls, it's only through the pain that we reap the rewards.


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