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Mitchell: It’s OK for Little Kids to Sit Around and Wonder

Quiz: Parent One has little kids who often complain of being bored. Parent Two has little kids who are active, involved in everything, have a schedule tighter than Hillary or Donald. Who is the better parent?

Increasingly, researchers say Parent One is the winner. That runs headlong into the adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Too bad.

For well over a generation the most prevalent suggestion of do-gooders has been that young people who are kept busy as less likely to fall prey to stuff like drugs and alcohol.

Many parents have responded by orchestrating every minute of every day — from breakfast to bedtime — with organized and structured events. Well, piffle.

The suggestion to keep ‘em busy came, no doubt, from well-meaning folks. And it has certainly fostered a bevy of well-programmed young people. But these children are not imaginative. They can’t solve problems. And they do have an addiction: They must constantly be entertained.

The better view is that little ones who aren’t parked in front of videos, aren’t provided tons of games, aren’t shuttled to baseball, gymnastics, play dates and any and all other distractions grow up and become more centered, have a better idea of who they are.

Now, those who are coaches or spirit camp leaders or otherwise offer events for kiddies — please put down your pens. No hate letters, please. Having children participate in a bevy of activities is fine — IF — they also have ample time to do nothing.

Nothing, that is, except think.

“Unstructured time challenges children to explore their own passions,” according to Parenting.com. “If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or they ‘fill’ their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to build a fort in the back yard, make a monster from clay, write a short story or song, organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie, or simply study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein did for hours).”

Nancy H. Blakey is a guru of all things pre-teen, author of five books on the topic. Her insight is a bit more profound and relates to all of humanity:

“If a thing cannot be imagined first — a cake, a relationship, a cure for AIDS — it cannot be,” she wrote.

Think about that. Every tool, every thing we know about started as an idea and came into existence through trial and error. Hammers evolved from someone imagining that affixing a handle to a rock would pack more punch. Jets that transit oceans with 300 people 30,000 feet in the air started with people who stared into the sky, said, “I wonder,” and tinkered.

“Life is bound by what we can envision,” Blakey wrote. “I cannot plant imagination into my children. I can, however, provide an environment where their creativity is not just another mess to clean up but welcome evidence of grappling successfully with boredom.’

She continues, “It is possible for boredom to deliver us to our best selves, the ones that long for risk and illumination and unspeakable beauty. If we sit still long enough, we may hear the call behind boredom. With practice, we may have the imagination to rise up from the emptiness and answer.”

In more practical terms, her admonition for parents with bored children is to offer suggestions: Bathe the dog, create a circus act, plant some seeds, make a necklace out of macaroni. Anything — anything — that requires thought, experimentation, planning.

Back to hard science: Components of the brain undergo rapid development in youngsters. Researchers believe imagination has no specific center, but flourishes through stimulation of a widespread neural network.

With exercise, this ability develops. Without exercise, it doesn’t.

This is not a “How to raise your kids” column. That topic is best left to others, far more learned. They can perform the experiments, calculate the results and, in the end, offer advice.

But it’s summertime in Mississippi. School’s out. Parents are looking for things for their children to do. And that’s great. Church camp is great. Band camp is great. Summer athletic leagues are great. Television can be entertaining and enriching. It is also OK —all the experts agree — for children to experience hours and days when there is no pre-planned, structured and controlled entertainment provided to them. No script.

It is a sure bet that some will get into trouble of some sort, but isn’t that part of growing-up, too?


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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