If you're a parent, a grandparent, a caregiver or a babysitter, you hear that phrase. A lot. I hear it most frequently from my youngest, Rowan, whom we describe around here as a man of action. He wants entertainment, excitement, drama and fun – and he wants it all. The. Time. This is a child who can spend all day visiting the park, the children's museum and Red Robin for dinner and then inquire, as we step over the threshold of our home, "What are we doing next?"
I used to make at least a halfhearted attempt to engage Rowan every time he cried, "What can I do next?" Often I felt guilty for doing laundry, or vacuuming or even cooking instead of focusing 100 percent of my attention on him. And I certainly resented his constant demands. But over time I came to realize two things: one, the more you give Rowan, the more he will take. And two, boredom is not necessarily bad.
In her book Not So Fast, Ann Kroeker writes about the hidden value of boredom. Too often as parents and caregivers, she notes, we rush to fill the empty spaces in our children's days with more activities – play dates, trips to the zoo, dance lessons, soccer practice, violin lessons. We worry that if their days aren't jam-packed, they won't keep up with their peers.
And I would add that if you're like me, perhaps we worry, too, that a kid with time on his hands reflects poorly on the parent.
But in filling our kids' days, Kroeker says, we brush past an essential piece of their childhood: the space and time to explore, to create.
"The speed of creativity is slow," she writes.
I admit, I had my doubts when I first read Kroeker's thoughts. "If I don't come up with fun things for Rowan to do, he'll just end up driving me completely insane with his nagging," I figured. Not only did I worry that this strategy would make me a bad parent, I also fretted that it would be damaging to my kids.
I was wrong.
I'm not going to tell you Rowan doesn't regularly announce that he's bored or inquire, "What are we going to do next?" But I will say that when given the opportunity, and when gently encouraged, he will find something to do. And that "something" won't be sitting on the couch dazed out in front of Camp Lazlo or SpongeBob.
Just recently Rowan spent 45 minutes in the backyard gathering acorns from beneath the oak tree. He filled an entire Tupperware container to the brim with acorns (note: as a mom you must be willing to relinquish vast quantities of Tupperware to the backyard for outdoor creativity to thrive) and then positioned the container on the patio table.
"Look! Look!" he announced, bounding in the back door. "Jumpy has enough food for the whole winter!" Granted, my favorite Tupperware is now iced over with 3,500 acorns for Jumpy the Squirrel to indulge in all winter long. But, Rowan had engaged in a unique, creative activity – and one that originated with him.
On another afternoon earlier this fall, I glanced out the sun room window to see Rowan splayed on the dirt under the withered tomato plants. I'm not exactly sure what he was doing (I hope not dismembering insects, but one never knows), but I do know he was so engaged in the activity, he didn't even notice when I crept up behind him to snap a few photos.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not neglecting my kids or refusing to engage them in any activities. But I am making a concerted effort to leave them some space to get creative on their own. More often than not, after the flurry of complaints has waned, I'll catch my youngest engaged in something far more interesting than I would have suggested myself.
Care to read Not So Fast? Click here. And visit Ann Kroeker at her website, too, where she has plenty of other tips for slowing down in this frenzied world.
P.S. Did you notice the praying mantis on the fence in the first picture? The kids spotted her – maybe because they had some free time on their hands?!