I grew up in a family where uttering the words “I’m bored” were akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain. No child with as many toys as my siblings and I had any reason to be bored. We had games, blocks, dolls, toys and, better yet, books. We had a split level house with a family room, a backyard with a swing and a court full of playmates. I had an older brother and a sister two years younger than me—the perfect playmates. Most importantly I had my imagination. What possible reason could I have to be bored?
My mother grew up in the 50s in rural Kansas. Her family did not have much money and likely had many fewer toys to play with than we did. In addition, my mother was afflicted with polio at the age of eleven and was sent away for treatment over a day’s drive away from her family. She stayed in a hospital for 6 months with her family only visiting on weekends. If anyone knew what boredom felt like, it was my mother.
In the 50s there were no televisions in hospitals rooms. There were no ipods, ipads, smart phones, laptops, game boys or any of the other handheld electronic devices that the children of this era often sport. The greatest forms of entertainment were books, other children and their imagination. My mother learned the valuable lesson of how to entertain herself at a very early age.
From time to time I read about toddlers “getting bored easily” or I hear parents saying “Well, we went to that play area but he got bored really quickly.” When I read or hear those words, I cringe. Now don’t get me wrong, I have a toddler– a very active, easily distracted, slightly hyperactive two and a half year old. I understand that toddlers do not have long attention spans; however, I still do not mark up impatience or lack of interest to boredom. I mark it up to a lack of creativity on the parent’s part.
This evening I gave my toddler a bath. The twenty-five plus toys that I have bought and assembled for her over the past two years no longer seem to be of interest to her. If she is bathing by herself she will usually last for about one minute before announcing “I want ouuutttt…out momma…..out….!!!” Usually this means, I want to be with you mom. If she is bathing with her same age cousin, the bath can last for hours as she plays, dumps water on his head repeatedly, and “washes” his hair. If she is by herself and the bath has no longer become of interest to her it’s because I have failed to make it a place that challenges or intrigues her developmentally or I have failed to offer something even more important, my attention.
My daughter is not bored with the bathtub. She just needs the company of her mother or a fresh perspective.
Tonight when I put my toddler in the bathtub I took two of the toys that she’s had available to her for months and I sat down with her to show her how to make them work and to play with her for a few minutes. One was a cup and the other a cup with a wheel that spins when water runs through. Pouring the water back and forth between these two cups kept her occupied for the next ten minutes. Taking two minutes out of my evening bedtime activities opened up a world of entertainment and excitement for her. She was not bored with the bathtub – she just needed some direction as to how to entertain herself – and that is because she is two. These are the skills that we teach our children.
Adults in this era are accustomed to instant gratification. Hit a button and the computer comes on. Instant entertainment. Drive by a building with a window and viola! Instant dinner. Give your child an iphone and show them a video. Instant babysitter!
Before I had my daughter I was in a relationship with a man who was a single parent to a five year old and an eight year old. If the wait at the restaurant was longer than two minutes he insisted we leave because his children would not be able to handle it. A five minute wait for food was accompanied by a bag of toys to keep them occupied. As soon as the meal was over, he would hunt down the waiter or waitress because the kids were bored. To put it in context, this man was addicted to his Blackberry.
Regardless of whether those children were bored or not, by being constantly entertained or removed from environments in which they might have to invent ways to entertain themselves, they were being deprived of two valuable lessons: 1. We go to restaurants to socialize with the people we love, not to be entertained constantly. 2. If you want to engage in an activity while you are waiting for something, you can use your imagination to find something to keep you interested and stimulated.
In addition to being deprived of valuable lessons they were unfortunately learning a lesson that is all too common in this day and age: If there is a moment of silence or a moment of inactivity that there must be something to fill up that time.
For many parents, electronic toys have become a parent’s extension of their own need for instant entertainment gratification onto their children. Children are not being taught how to entertain themselves and how to socialize with other people, they are being taught that if they are lacking in something that is of interest they should either leave the environment or hit a button and turn on an electronic device.
Last week I was in an ice cream café and my young two year old went up to a three or four year old boy who was busying himself with his parents’ phone. My daughter was exploring her environment, socializing and finding ways to occupy herself that were pleasing to her. The boy was lost in his parents cell phone…well, lost in a non-human interaction and missing the challenge of learning to entertain himself. Refreshingly, the parents took the phone from the boy and encouraged him to socialize with my daughter. In my opinion, he should never have had the phone in the first place. Is ice cream and your parents company not entertainment enough?!
Using electronic devices to silence our children is crippling our children’s natural curiosity of the world and of their ability to socialize with others. As parents we need to be aware of this before we end up with a generation of children who are constantly reliant on some external source for entertainment. We are raising a generation of children who need it and need it now. We may be raising a generation of children who do not socialize well and who will one day be raising the next generation.
The change must begin now.
(Please leave comments in the comments section to let me know what YOU think!)