Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Do children get their daily dose of boredom?

 May 31, 2014

By Bharoti Pande For The Straits Times

HAVE you ever wondered why Archimedes had his eureka moment while relaxing in a bathtub? Or why a falling apple gave Newton a brainwave and not just a bump?

I believe it's because both men were at their creative best as they were in the throes of total inactivity, possibly even boredom. Yes, boredom has a value. And so with the summer holidays coming up, make sure you don't cram your children's days with only classes and activities. It's important to give them a dose of boredom too.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the laid-back, indulgent type of mum. If anything, I fit the stereotype of a "Tiger Mum": I'm Indian-Singaporean, and my children were strictly disciplined. They learnt the value of hard work, and ended up in Ivy League schools where they had to work very hard for scholarships to make the tuition affordable.

They could have been the famous bogey-children Tom Friedman warned his daughters about: "Girls, finish your homework - people in China and India are starving for your jobs". But honestly, I was a far cry from Amy Chua's now (in)famous Tiger Mum: despite the strict discipline, I believed in boredom being an important part of a child's education.

Consequently I was surprised when I Googled the word "boredom" to find that all the links only showed ways to overcome. It was much like WebMD, an American corporation which provides health information services, handles a query on urinary tract infections or earache. This attitude to boredom pervades our society and drives parents to dole out what they believe is "responsible parenting". As a result, activities are programmed for each moment a child doesn't spend in school: tennis, piano, violin, tuition, pottery, art, taekwondo, swimming, singing - and if all else fails, a play date. The view seems to be that the more you organise, the better parent you are. So we have children who don't know how to entertain themselves and, more importantly, don't even know themselves, as they've never had the opportunity to be alone.

We seldom hear the plaintive cry "I'm bored!" coming from a child today. I believe this is a sad indicator of how many opportunities for growth and maturing have been lost. The usual response a parent would have had to Jack's "I'm bored" would have been "Go find something to do…". Jack would soon realise that boredom was his responsibility, something he had to handle or accept if he couldn't come up with a solution. This is how life shapes up anyway, so it's a useful skill to teach our children. I truly believe parents today are far more conscientious than those of my generation ever were. They take parenting very, very seriously. But while they have a lot of information available to them, they still miss out on the wisdom that can only come with experience.

In their quest to be good parents, they feel guilty about unstructured time instead of valuing it. Looking back, I'm truly glad that we didn't have smart phones and smart apps. Our children had to entertain themselves and soon accepted that life could be dull or exciting, depending on what you made of it.

Thanks to wireless hotspots and 24/7 connectivity, every corner is a potential workstation, or if not a workstation, most definitely an information kiosk. The fact that connectivity is available seems to suggest that it must be used. Children have been made to feel inadequate if they are not swinging to a constant mental march.

No one sits anymore with a blank look, eyes glazed over, with fingers drumming to a faint tune as the brain whirs at its own pace and down its own path.

Last week as I sat in an airport lounge I noticed I was the only one sipping something from a cup. I mean, just sipping, not doing anything else. Everyone around me was eating and texting, or drinking and using an entertaining app. I believe they weren't even aware of the taste of what they had on their plates. For me, even water has a taste.

I have vivid recollections of my childhood in Calcutta: standing on the balcony, watching others also just standing on their balconies; or watching the raindrops scuttle along telegraph wires till they coalesced and became too heavy and plopped down. This is what children today are missing out on: the luxury of letting their brain dance to its own tune at its own pace. Instead, as a result of "good" parenting, they get constant stimulation but lose out on a deep, personal growth that can only come with introspection and silence.

I wish young parents today were bold enough to schedule in hours of boredom for their children, and so give them the unstructured time they need to discover their own eureka moments. Children need periods of mental blankness for personal growth, just as they need sheets of blank paper for creative expression.

This is when they can delve into themselves, learn who they are, what they want and, most importantly, grow comfortable with themselves, warts and all.

How are they going to get this enrichment in their hectically organised world? Will parents only recognise that this has a value if it is available via a free app?

The writer teaches Business Communication at Singapore Management University. She has two children, now adults, whose childhoods were enriched with periods of boredom.

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