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In Defense of Childhood Boredom

In a capitalist world that emphasizes efficiency, we've forgotten how to just be alone with ourselves.
Children in grass

Childhood can exist almost outside of time, if its tenuous relationship to the clocks and schedules of adults is preserved. A young child has no real sense of the passing of time—and thus does not bear the weight we adults feel in its relentless passing. Little boys and girls can spend hours making paper airplanes, watching dust motes sparkle and glimmer in a patch of sunlight, playing with toy trucks or dolls. And to a child, each of these moments has a lasting resonance—not because of its existence within a structured timeline or framework, but because of the interior world every such moment cultivates.

I remember staring at the trees in my grandparents’ backyards, and giving each of them a backstory that broke them out of mundane suburbia and placed them instead within a fantastical anthropomorphic world. Coins, which passed through so many hands before they were placed in my own, took on a mysterious and haunted quality. The dirt in our backyard served as a kingdom for ants or Legos, providing the matter necessary for fictional food or urban infrastructure.

Childhood, I once thought, was made up of little moments such as these: learning how to whistle with a blade of grass, spin a coin, make mud pies, shuffle a deck of cards. But as I’ve grown older, I have realized that many parents fear the unstructured time in which such moments exist. We are afraid of boredom, afraid of our children existing outside of our clocks and schedules. So we fill their days with playdates, activities, schoolwork, sports, extracurriculars, and more.

“We parents are on a quest of Tolkien magnitude: curating the perfect childhood for our kids,” Ruth Margolis writes at The Week. “It’s a never-ending and, quite frankly, thankless job…. Bucket loads of juvenile ennui and time spent staring at the same cracked spot on our bedroom wall and imagining what was underneath never did us grown-ups any harm, but somehow we assume it’s the kiss of death for our own kids.”

Boredom has become a “frightening and dreaded experience to which we parents must respond immediately,” Nancy Colier notes in Psychology Today. “Boredom is not up to a kid to figure out anymore, it’s a parent’s issue and a parent’s problem. Boredom is a state that our children shouldn’t have to endure, and allowing our kids to experience it, not taking it seriously, might even be a sign of parental neglect.”

This parental fear of boredom may have arisen out of the helicopter parenting trend. It could also be tied to the nuclear family’s relative isolation in our time: without at least some degree of comfort with one’s neighbors, parents may not always feel comfortable letting their children play outside unattended—which is one of the best arenas for unscripted play and boredom.

Our age of entertainment media and smart technology likely also plays a role here. It is often easy to use smart devices as quasi-babysitters when we need to get things done—but once our children grow to expect constant entertainment and gratification, we don’t know how to break their addiction to the easy entertainment of Netflix shows and YouTube videos.

“With tech has come the expectation that our kids (and even us adults) should be able to live in a state of uninterrupted entertainment and pleasurable busyness, 24/7,” Colier writes. “Tech [offers]…a forever-stocked refrigerator of free and interesting food for our attention. We even get to congratulate ourselves for eating around the clock from this fridge, under the guise of learning more, doing more, communicating more, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is the definition of living more.”

Many psychologists and parenting experts are now encouraging parents to “structure unstructured time” for their kids: to let them be bored, and encourage them to figure out how to entertain themselves, by themselves. These experts praise boredom for its power to foster creativity and imagination, to shape personality and foster realistic expectations of the world. Boredom is a breeding ground for innovation and intellectual growth, they note, and can even build leadership skills.

I agree with all these verdicts, at least to some extent. But they also show how much we adults like to (ironically) make boredom industrious—to place it back within time, within our vision of productivity and growth. It seems necessary for us to endow boredom with specific ends and purposes before we’re willing to embrace it.

In his article “The Millennial Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Will Hanna suggests that American Millennials worship efficient productivity, and experience deep anxiety when they are unable to quantify their activity. This is why, Hanna argues, Millennials have turned their very status as adults into a verb: adulting. Because it is not enough for a Millennial to simply be something—their very worth and identity are predicated on their productivity. Even social media feeds this anxiety, with its endless scroll of stories that we participate in via likes, emojis, and comments. We waste endless hours online, feeling like we are accomplishing…something. Anything to avoid being alone and still—to simply just be.

It makes sense that we might place all this productive anxiety on our children—that we might worry they too will see themselves as worthless if they are not relentlessly busy. In this conception of the problem, our fear of boredom has far less to do with our children than it has to do with us. Boredom doesn’t hurt children—far from it. It’s one of the best gifts we can give them. But that implies, then, that boredom might be a gift we could give ourselves—even as adults. Yet most adults would run screaming from the idea.

We hate standing in line at the grocery store. We hate being stuck in traffic. Don’t even mention sitting on the front porch without a book, phone, or tablet. Sitting still and doing nothing is anathema to most people—and we hurry to fill any such moments of supposed “nothingness” with something else, anything else.

In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell notes that in a capitalist age, most spaces “deemed commercially unproductive are always under threat, since what they ‘produce’ can’t be measured or exploited or even easily identified…I see a similar battle playing out for our time, a colonization of the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency.” Our children are extremely vulnerable in this classification of worth, because they “produce” little to nothing. Their primary value, for the capitalist, lies in what they will produce someday—which is why adults so often apply the language of means to childhood activities such as reading, playing, and even being bored. These things are only goods insofar as they cultivate that larger, future end of productivity and efficiency.

Childhood boredom can thus take on an almost subversive quality in our time—as can our own boredom. Its primary gift to us might just lie in its prompting to embrace the world on its own terms, not to make it into something else: to prize every moment for its own sake, not for its sequential space in the journey toward greater productivity and efficiency.

Many adults loathe having to just be with themselves, in the world, with no agenda or purpose. But this is a dangerous fear to pass on to our children. Boredom should help foster children’s comfortability in simply being where they are and who they are, cultivating both the health of their interior world and their capacity for wonder over the exterior world.

But it would be wrong to cultivate such things in our children, and neglect them ourselves. Are we willing to set ourselves to the task we’ve set for our children? Are we willing to stare in wonder at motes of dust, or remember why building a paper airplane can be a delightful activity?

This isn’t trite or silly. Nor is it about returning to a childhood state of innocence. It’s about having the capacity—the wisdom, even—to be quiet and still in a culture that runs off entertainment and clicks, flashes of light and pleasure that rewire our brains and deaden us to the beauty of the world around us. It is about believing in the worth of life itself, regardless of its utility. It is about stepping outside time, and letting the incessant hum of clocks and smartphones and social media carry on without us.

The goal of boredom should not be to turn our children into little Einsteins, or to get them to “leave us alone.” The goal—for them, as well as for ourselves—should be to help cultivate their ability to simply be, in a world that will constantly be goading them to do.