In praise of boredom

Dear moms and dads: ease off the cruise-director parenting and you'll be surprised at how active kids will be

School's out. The kids are bored. So it's time for that annual onslaught of dreadfully earnest articles about exciting outings, interesting craft projects and other "Top Boredom Busters" you can do with your children.

I hate these articles. First, shoot me, but I don't like playing with kids. That's why I had three of them. I was trying to meet supply and demand. And why I've never minded platoons of kids running through our house. Feed an army? Referee fights? No problem. Just deliver me from art projects involving popsicle sticks.

The second reason I don't like the "Boredom Busters" is because they imply my kids' boredom is my problem. It isn't. And they suggest the solution is more parent-led activities and scheduling. Not.

As a kid, when I told my mom I was bored, she always told me to clean my room. Or practice the piano. Which, of course, is mother code for Get Out of My Face. So I'd have to go away and steep in my own boredom until I found a friend and something to do.

Like building a fort. Spying on the strange neighbors. Making a mini-golf course in the driveway. Pretending we were orphan seals and barking all afternoon.

None of which was adult-directed. Which is why boredom can be so useful. It's nature's way of forcing kids -- or bored adults for that matter -- to come up with some new, creative act. Kids who are protected from boredom by videos, cruise-director parents and a relentless stream of scheduled events end up being, well … boring.

Awhile back, a private school official called and asked if I'd help some seniors write their college application essays. These were reasonably bright, upper-middle class, mostly suburban kids. Many had led on-task, focused lives, starting from pre-school, as their busy parents helped them burnish resumes filled with extra classes, sports and activities.

Unfortunately, all this hyper-parenting had also produced some impressively drone-like offspring. Their essays showed no spark. No sense of individuality. They were just dull -- maybe in part because they had rarely languished long enough in their own boredom to dream up something creative and original that they actually wanted to do.

As any regular reader of this column has figured out, I have very few creative, original ideas, just recurrent themes. Here are three that apply to kids and summer boredom:

  • Relax, your children will not be kidnapped. Unless you're able to personally arrange it, and no, you won't be the first weary parent with this fantasy. But forget it. The cops will be on to you from the get-go.

  • Turn off the screens. You don't have to destroy them like the Taliban. Just turn them off most of the time. Last week, I read about a California mom who said her three kids didn't play outside anymore because they were too busy playing video games in their bedrooms. She mourned their sterile, indoor, electronic summers, especially when compared to her childhood which involved building forts, running through sprinklers and biking around with her friends.

"She wants to nurture magic in her children's lives," the sympathetic reporter wrote, but added, "She's also a realist."

Oh, get out. (Or in mother code: go clean your room. Practice your piano.) Screens are electronic bongs. So what would we call a mother who complains that her kids are too stoned to play outside, but shrugs it off because she's "a realist"?

An enabler. And what would we call the same mother who not only lets her kids get wasted, but actually goes out to Best Buy and buys them more screens and games -- I mean, drugs?

Truly twisted. Look, we can wring our hands and moan about modern culture. Or we can just pull the plug and discover that … this is a great city to grow up in. And it keeps getting better as the kids get older. Whenever people tell me they're moving to the suburbs to raise their kids, I just don't get it. I grew up in Arden Hills. No sidewalks. No stores. No parks within walking distance. The lakes were surrounded by private homes. You needed a car to get anywhere.

I often biked. But the roads curved and with cars driving by at 45 miles per hour or faster, biking could be scary. This year, the Star-Tribune reported that despite all the fears of inner-city crime, your chances of being killed were far greater in the suburbs than in the city -- because the suburbs had so many more deadly car accidents.

So I compare my childhood to that of my three boys who are growing up in the city. Where they can walk to their terrific public school. Walk or bike to the library. Or to the beaches. Or the fishing docks at Lake Harriet. Or to the park to play soccer or baseball. Or to the local coffee shops to meet friends. And when they're old enough to ride the bus, the whole city opens up.

My 14-year-old and his friends take the bus to the Guthrie for rush seats; to Twins games for bargain tickets; to ComedySportz in Uptown for improvisational shows and more. We'll do pick-up duty because I don't want 14-year-olds on the bus late at night. But I'm telling you, the city is a great place to grow up.

Maybe that's why my kids rarely tell me they're bored. Or maybe because they know I'll tell 'em to go clean their rooms.

Mother code. It works every time.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer. You can reach her at [email protected] or c/o The Southwest Journal.