I used to love it when my children would come up to me and ask me to play with them. This is what it’s all about, right? Quality time, giving them your full attention, responding to their needs.
But after a while I began to realize what was really going on. Most of those requests for play time weren’t coming from a desire to be close or because they missed me. They were just bored and wanted me to entertain them.
My kids, like most children, I’m sure, frequently complain of boredom when they aren’t being actively entertained by something electronic. As much as we limit their TV and computer time, they still yearn for them as their go-to way to pass the time in life. Once their allotted time for those things has run out each day, I can often see a dull fear come over their faces, a lost and lonely cowering that says, “Now what?”
And that’s when the pleading for more Daddy time comes in. See, they never want Daddy time when they can watch TV or play a computer game; just when they don’t want to figure out what to do for themselves.
That’s the problem that so many young people need to learn to solve–how to entertain themselves. When my children tell me that they’re bored, I say things like, “Good. There’s nothing wrong with being bored, and it’s not my job to entertain you. You have a strong body and a brain with an imagination. You can find something good to do. It’s OK if you have to sit around quietly for a while thinking of something to do. Great ideas don’t need to come right away.” Frankly, with all of the digital overstimulation in our society, being forced to face and deal with their own boredom is a great life lesson for children.
I see this issue crossing over from my home to the educational realm, also. Schools are filled with young people who expect to be entertained at all times. Students hate the boring, quiet, slow processes of having to think things through–when an answer isn’t immediately present, even very smart children will whine for a special dispensation and balk blandly when told that they need to work on things more themselves before giving up or being bailed out. In all fairness, though, this is hardly new in the world–people in general have always liked to be entertained, and have prefered not to have to think if they can avoid it.
This is also something that we as teachers have sadly encouraged–one of my professors in college had been one of the inventors of Sesame Street, and she said that, after the show came on the air and elementary school teachers started complaining that children were showing shorter attention spans in class, she would tell them just to make their classes more like Sesame Street. Wow. She, the co-developer of the show, said that. Not some anti-TV critic.
I’m reminded of that bit of Internet lore about how children in previous decades survived all the things we’re afraid of and shield children from now. (Here’s a copy. You’ve probably read it before.) Part of it says:
We would leave home in the morning
and play all day , as long as we were
back when the streetlights came on .
No one was able to reach us all day .
And we were O.K.
Silly as this glurge is, there is some truth to it.
So, when my children ask me to play with them, I no longer automatically do it. I hate to say no sometimes to something that we cherish as much as family time, but when even that becomes a crutch, a substitute for developing independence, it does more harm than good.