The other day I met a young mother who has two little kids and in our conversation, I asked her an innocuous question (or that’s what I thought): “What are you doing these summer holidays?” Her breathless answer left me reeling. In the six weeks that the kids were off school, she had signed them for workshops, planned a holiday abroad which would fit in summer camps, get back home for creative writing classes and finish homework and summer projects. And did I tell you that she had come to meet me as she felt that she was not doing enough for her kids? I could just gape in wonder as she wrung her hands with guilt wondering what else she could fit in their schedule so that “they could get the best out of their summer holidays” and “not be bored”.
Why are we so afraid of our children becoming bored? It is as if in some ways it shows how inadequate we have been as parents. The child has to just mutter the words “I am bored” for the parents to go into panic mode and start belting out, “Why don’t you…?” “Lets do…”, “I can make…”, till the time the bored monster is restrained and muted with frenzied activity.
No wonder our children’s lives are becoming more and more about seeking excitement. Those little hungry brains, hands and eyes are always looking for steady dose of highs that can keep them buzzing. As parents, we feel we are failing them if we are not providing it to them constantly.
On one hand, it burns us out as we are constantly on the go – planning, organising, ferrying them and on the other hand, it deprives our children of downtime – time to do nothing and just be.
I grew up in a small town in the mountains where school holidays were relished to the last day. And when I look back and try to figure out what I really did during that stretch of three months, I am at a complete loss. However, the images are so clear in my mind that if I close my eyes, I am there. Lugging the books to our favourite nook in the hills, spending the whole day reading, chatting, singing, dreaming, giggling, eating, finding shapes and stories in the clouds, trudging back home again in the evening to start all over again the next morning. Eventless, but hugely nourishing.
It is different now, isn’t it? The mention of summer holiday sends most parents into a panic. And in no time, we have a tight schedule ready for the six weeks looming ahead of us. Theatre workshops, music classes, swimming coaching, summer camps, tennis crash courses. The options are many and we start filling up their days with hectic schedules, which could be the envy of any army general. It releases us of any sense of guilt and we can go on with our regular lives, safe in the knowledge that “at least they are doing something constructive”. But are they?
Drip versus dazzle
There is a cluster of neurons in the brain called ‘nucleus accumbens’ which moderates the dopamine levels in our system. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter for reward, thrill and happiness in our brain (that is what is firing when you bite into your favourite chocolate). Now a child brought up on “dripping dopamine” tolerates boredom well and learns to seek it from within, digging deep to connect to his or her creativity, flight of imagination and resourcefulness. She could take to reading, painting, dreaming, plotting stories, basically contended to “be”.
On the other hand, a child brought up on constant “dazzling dopamine” is averse to boredom and constantly craves that buzz from the external world — video games, checking Instagram likes, adventure parks, new toys, travel to exciting places — the lack of which causes frustration and despair. This can become a problem as it is exhausting for their systems without any downtime for restoration or repair.
Therefore, the idea that I want to share with you is this: Kids need to be bored. Stillness and solitude is essential to their growth and it is a milestone they have to cross to reach a rich inner life of contemplation and creativity.
And yes, it is not going to be easy. In this world where everybody is seeking “dopamine dazzle”, it is tough to dial down. However, I would suggest that maybe, use this summer holiday to just chill, relax and go on the “dripping dopamine” mode so that your kids (and you) can tap into your rich internal world.
Turn it around
I remember when my kids were little and would start whining “I am bored”, I would say, “That’s wonderful! What are you planning to do with it?” Rather than making boredom something to be avoided, welcome it as a friend and let them think what they would like to do about it.
Take out a big chart paper or whiteboard and ask them what they would like to do when they are bored (obviously screens have to be ruled out). Initially, they might come up with typical answers like read a book, make a drawing, bake a cake but it’s only after sometime they would really put on their thinking caps and come up with creative ideas. Putting up a skit on saving the environment, making a shelter for street puppies, designing a makeshift tent under the dining table, composing a song. Get them to write down all these ideas on a piece of paper and stick it on the fridge. They would know where to look next time they are bored.
It might become worse before it becomes better
A child who has been surviving on external buzz would obviously not give in without dragging his heels. There will be whining, bargaining, may be full on tantrums. Stay calm, empathise with his struggles but just hang in there.
Build in some “unplugged” times
Have detox screen days where nothing is planned at all. Just drift through the day without any gadgets. The visuo-motor ecstasy of the screen is hugely addictive and does not allow much of creative growth. Our solutions of controlling boredom are also getting easier as we shove smartphones and iPads into their eager hands to buy us peace as we shop, travel, work, wait and go about our daily lives. Now don’t despair, I am not ruling out screen times completely as that would be unrealistic. As long as you have pockets where you do not use screens – meal times, family outings, when you are away on holiday in some wilderness – anything. We all need to experience and relish life without the constant need to fidget with the screens. Make a creativity corner in the house which can store everything they need for experimenting and messing around – paper, pencils, paints, glue, sequins, sand, water, scissors, musical instruments, ball, bat etc. City kids need a healthy dose of “green time”. A vacation in the hills or forest is all that it takes for them to get detoxed from the churning urban culture.
Be around and walk the talk
Letting them assume responsibility for their time does not mean that you step back completely. This is the time when you can have fun times with them with no dreaded homework, morning school rush or weekly tests. Take out board games, do charades and while you are at it, why not design some of your own? Kids have keen hypocrisy radars so it will not work if they see you stuck to your gadgets. These are detox times for you too. As the kids see you pottering away with some DIY projects or just musing at the clouds, they are learning that is alright to just “be”.
Bertrand Russell obviously understood the problem with the “dazzling dopamine” when he said, “Too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.”