In praise of boredom

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Jul. 14, 2010

Last Thursday, my daughter dispatched me to fetch my five-year old granddaughter home from summer camp. Normally, accompanied by her nanny, and her little sister in a stroller, she walks the 20 minutes each way, no special effort for this energetic child. But that day, the extreme heat and humidity suggested discretion in an air-conditioned car was the better part of potential heatstroke-inducing valour.

No sooner after clicking in her seat belt and turning the ignition key did I hear the familiar sound of a peppy Backyardigans tune from the back seat. The little tyke is quite expert with the built-in DVD player and can shuffle all her favourites with no adult assistance.

"Pumpkin," I chirped (in an assiduously cultivated non-judgmental tone I reserve only for grandchildren), "do you really need to watch a DVD? We'll be home very soon, you know." She just as sweetly chirped back, "When grown-ups say 'very soon', it is a long time for children."

I pondered the ineluctable wisdom of this statement. I also considered my own complicity in forming this poppet's assumed right to entertainment to preclude even three minutes' worth of boredom. Hadn't I, after all, enthusiastically agreed to the installation of the dual DVD stations in the headrests of my Subaru, so that when my daughter is ferrying her children hither and yon (she uses my car a lot more than I do), not only can each child look at her own screen, each can watch her own preferred DVD?

I'm not sorry I had them installed. On extended trips they are a godsend, and since I often ride shotgun on five-and six-hour trips with my daughter and the kids -- Montreal to Toronto and Maine --I'm a grateful beneficiary of the automotive peace these miracles of modern technology furnish.

Human beings haven't gone to Mars or found a cure for cancer, but we do seem to have crossed the final frontier in the war against child boredom.

When I was a child, I remember vast swathes of boredom as a stoically endured part of life: In cars and at cottages, on days too rainy or cold to play outside, and especially in sickbeds.

The only known antidotes to situational boredom in my generation were books and radio. I wasn't a radio type. So for me it was comic books, then books, with no distractions for full days at a time: no email, texts, Facebook, no social connectivity of any kind.

Boredom never hurt any healthy, well-educated child. In fact, recurrent patches of it should be regarded not only as a desirable component of a normal childhood, but arguably the best possible spur to elite literacy. Many successful writers formed in a pre-digital era -- George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens spring to mind -- credit childhoods spent largely alone, surrounded by great piles of books, for their love of the written word.

So will my grandchildren be readers? They have no idea what real boredom is. When not in school, structured activities or arranged play dates, they are hovered over by nannies, who patiently play with them to their little hearts' content, which my at-home mom friends and I never did with ours. After nanny leaves and on weekends, their working parents feel that it's only fair to devote every precious free hour to their kids, or at least make sure they are otherwise "stimulated." A child's boredom looks a lot like a negative performance review.

Thus, in cars it is the DVD; in restaurants it is a big backpack stuffed with art supplies, dolls, toys and of course an iPod Touch for games and movies. At times, dining out with the whole brood along, my husband and I feel like mealtime visitors at a day-care centre.

I send my grandchildren new books every month. They are eagerly received, I am told. But apart from bedtime, it is rare for one of them to ask me to read to them, something I long to do, since "playing" with children -- well, frankly, just as it did when I was a parent of young children, bores me to tears. Which is why, when my children would interrupt my own reading to tell me they were bored, I would reluctantly promise, "I'll play with you very soon. Just wait 'til I finish reading this chapter."

By that time--very soon for grown-ups is a long time for children, you know--they'd picked up a book of their own.