The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer
Since my grandson was born nearly four years ago, I’ve been part of the Village Raising Austin. In his first years, I was with him once a week, and now the 10-hour babysitting shifts are twice monthly.
I volunteered for this partly because I’m a former education reporter and parenting columnist who understands the research on full-time day care before age five. I also did it because I wanted Austin to be completely contented with me during those 10 hours. The only way to get that glue-like bond with a small child is by putting in the time. It’s sort of like prison, but with more finger-painting.
But most importantly, I did it because there’s one thing grandmothers can teach better than anyone else. That something is boredom.
Parents today are constantly pressured to keep their children entertained. This really ramps up during summer when parents fear that every second of a child’s life must be “enriched” or he’ll wind up on a therapist’s couch or joining a circus.
But it’s impossible to be entertaining 24/7. Worse, it results in children who expect life to be all unicorns and rainbows and become whiny, anxious, device-addicted kiddos when they discover that it is not.
Learning how to harvest boredom for the gift it can be is the secret to a happy life. Women in their wisdom years understand this keenly, having been around the block about a million times. We remember quite well our mothers’ messages after breakfast in the summer: Go play and come home only when you hear me call you for lunch.
We also remember telling our own bored brood to go walk the dog or wash the car or read a book or write a letter to a lonely relative.
I’m not advocating completely hands-off parenting — or grandparenting. Children, especially the very young and those in middle school, need a lot of direction to be able to safely access boredom. They also need a surfeit of cuddling and careful listening to build the strength necessary to master their universe.
But the world today is awash in input. Our pocket computers ding constantly, letting us know the latest thing our tweeter in chief just said or sending us must-cook recipes. Exhausted parents plug their kids into devices just to get a minute alone, which causes further problems.
We need to realize that everyone needs time and space from noise and “content,” and children need time and space on their own to discover and reflect.
I play with Austin a lot. My exercise tracker regularly reads well above 12,000 steps on our days together. We plant gardens, bake bread, dance in the kitchen, sword fight with pool noodles and read as many library books in one sitting as he wants.
But we also have quiet time and I tell him to play alone sometimes because what I want to give him, besides excellent advice about adventure hats, is the ability to see boredom as a gift. I want to help his tiny brain develop an imagination that isn’t front loaded by “PJ Masks” characters or YouTube Kids. In a universe yelling “Look at me!”, I want him to have time to think.
The other day driving to the library, I was surprised Austin didn’t ask for a kids’ music CD on the 15-minute drive. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw him in his car seat staring out the window.
The look on his face reminded me of long family car trips with our four young kids in tow long before plugging children into iPads with noise-canceling headphones became de rigueur. The look said, “I’m bored.” I drove on in silence.
When we arrived at the library, Austin finally spoke.
“You know what, Nana?” he said, climbing out of his car seat. “When I’m 5, I get to have gum. And when I’m 10, I can wear a necklace. And when I’m 12, I’m going to be a worker and when I’m 17, I’m going to be a garbage truck driver!”
He was beaming. Unlike his grandmother, who still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, Austin had his first life plan. And he came up with it because he was bored.