You know you’ve succeeded when your son comes to you this summer and says, “I’m bored.”
Time to celebrate.
Also, time to resist handing him the TV remote, iPad, or your phone.
Because boredom, like that green smoothie you guzzle in the morning, is chock-full of benefits for kids (and adults).
In the 1950s, cognitive psychologist Jerome L. Singer set out to research, of all things, daydreaming. While other researchers were pigeonholing mind-wandering into the area of psychopathology, Singer had a theory that not only was daydreaming a part of normal, everyday life, positive constructive daydreaming had all sorts of benefits.
The results of his exhaustive study through the decades proved him right.
Singer found that “daydreaming, imagination and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life.” In young children, it increased their waiting ability. It also enhanced their social skills and storytelling.
He wrote that positive constructive daydreaming “was associated with Openness to Experience, reflecting curiosity, sensitivity, and exploration of ideas, feelings, and sensations.”
That right there sounds like the description of a well-rounded child.
The great scholars and poets and writers of earlier eras spent a lot of time thinking in quiet places: we all have images of Henry David Thoreau traipsing through the woods and marshes around Walden Pond; of Leo Tolstoy walking the fields of Yasnaya Polyana, his family estate; of Mark Twain, exploring the riverbank and caves that would give birth to his best stories.
In an era of hyper-productivity, it can be hard to watch our boys “wasting time” by spacing out, rolling on the floor, wandering the house, or coming to us like a limp rag, asking to once again play Minecraft.
Yet these are the best opportunities to invite our boys outside with an invitation to do...nothing. What may look like a waste of time, is, according to modern day research, as important to mental health as a good night's rest. When boys have downtime, without a screen in front of them, they’re able to explore their own mind, one of the few final frontiers where they still have free reign. It allows time for reflection, fantasizing, and story building.
Professor Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in the New York Times about our brain’s two kinds of attention: inward and outward. Fiddling with the TV or playing a video game are both examples of outward attention. They’re not intrinsically bad. The problem is you can’t simultaneously engage both inward and outward attention. As long as our boys are outwardly engaged, they are being robbed of inward attention, the kind that leads to reflection, projection, and processing of the world around them.
Like pretty much anything else in parenting, we can start by setting the example: stashing away that phone and going for a walk, putting out a blanket in the backyard to stare at the stars, searching for four-leaf clovers in a nearby field.
In James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the title character engages in multiple daydreams throughout his day. He constantly zones out of the real world to indulge in fantasies of heroism and bravery. Yet he never steps outside his own head.
When we see our kids zoning out, we all worry we might have this kind of Walter Mitty on our hands, the kind who withdraws because he can't keep paces with the rest of the world. So we build up the productivity, through math tutoring, karate lessons, swim team, art classes, and a healthy dose of educational programming.
To me, the movie version of “Walter Mitty,” released a few years ago, gives a more promising vision of the daydream believer. In this version, Walter Mitty still concocts epic fantasies in his head. This time, however, he takes that physical leap into the unknown and sets the ball rolling for a grand adventure.
We all hope for boys like the second Walter Mitty, the ones who act upon their dreams. But first we have to allow for the space and quiet, that yawning chasm of time, to roll on the grass, stare at the trees, watch paint dry, to get good and righteously bored.
We have to allow, before the action, the dreaming.