It starts when they are born. As soon as our precious babes emerge from the womb, parents seem determined to bombard them with stimulation, lest they lose the edge that we seem to think is so necessary to be successful as adults. We buy them stimulating toys that sing, play nursery rhymes, count, recite the alphabet and even do sums. When they start to walk we buy them multi -functional walkers that look like the control panel for starship enterprise; it seems that walking itself is no longer exciting enough for today’s toddler – they have to be able to sing 12 songs, learn French, count to 10 and match shapes too for the activity to really grab them. The same with other pieces of kit; little chairs, mirrors and even potties are no longer deemed thrilling enough on their own so must be enhanced with a plethora of other activities if they are to sufficiently engage our tots.
Then we send them to nursery and preschool, carefully chosen for their stimulating qualities. Peace and quiet, downtime and just being are not valued activities as nurseries fall over themselves to offer eager parents ever more exciting and enriching environments, with dance classes, swimming, Mandarin and who knows what else on the daily menu.
When they are not at nursery we take them to classes and activities ourselves – baby ballet, football, art, dance, tap, swimming, languages, music etc etc. Even a trip to the library is no longer an oasis of calm and tranquillity – there is rhythm time and singing, story time and craft. Museums too offer a range of stimulation for the bored toddler, cashing in on the desire by mum and dad to constantly provide their tot with a brain-enriching environment.
And then they go to school. School is now a hotbed of stimulation with interactive whiteboards, iPads, trips, outings, drama, re-enactments, TV, film etc. And, if that is not enough stimulation for a growing brain, we enrol them in after school classes too, just to ensure that their every waking moment is filled with worthy stimulants. They don’t even get a breather in the holidays – instead we pack them off to holiday clubs that offer maths, science, sports, music and above all, constant stimulation.
And any spare moment in between all of this is filled by their smartphones, iPads and other devices that stream constant, but passive, stimulation from around the world at the tap of a finger.
What are we doing to our kids? I have studied and researched boredom for 15 years now and have written the definitive book on it called the Upside of Downtime; why boredom is good. In it I argue that whilst too much boredom is never a good thing, too little is bad too. Boredom has its upsides and by trying to eliminate it for our kids’ lives, we risk producing a generation unable to tolerate low levels of stimulation. Kids are becoming so accustomed to novelty and constantly changing, fast moving, noisy stimulation, that they can’t cope with the dull, routine and mundane aspects of life – like sitting in a lecture or meeting, reading a report, writing an essay or revising for exams. And when they can’t cope and get fidgety, bored, naughty and troublesome, we label them hyperactive – could this be why there is such a massive increase in ADHD diagnosis these days?
I have also conducted and published research that shows that boredom makes us more creative. It allows us to daydream which in turn helps us solve problems and come up with new ways of doing things. In my book on boredom, there is a whole section showing what my 8 year old did whilst he was bored whilst I was writing – read it and you will see what a magical journey his boredom took him on.
Of course, I am not advocating sitting kids in a darkened room for hours on end with only their imagination to entertain them. There has to be a happy medium – a balance. And at the moment, I think we as a society have got that balance wrong.
So not only do I let my kids be bored, I positively encourage it. A little bit (or even a lot bit) of downtime is good for growing brains that don’t need constant stimulation in order to develop. Let our kids be bored!