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School’s out, what should our children do?

As children spend summer vacations preparing for the serious business of life, are they losing their ability to practise boredom?

Photo: iStockphoto.
Photo: iStockphoto.

In the summers, city children are made to undertake so many recreational activities, it is as though they are inmates of Tihar jail. They learn painting, origami, pottery, embroidery, music, karate and sports. Also, chocolate-making. It is a consequence of a colonial idea called the summer vacation. Parents are skilled in tormenting schools to achieve their ends but they have not moved to abolish the two-month-long break that takes summer, merely a season, too seriously.

Parents have not killed the summer vacation probably because they do not wish to appear as though they do not want to spend time with their children. It is inauspicious. Instead, in the summers they contribute to a huge cash-economy market for character-building activities. This is partly to get rid of their children for a few hours every day, and partly to prepare them for the serious business of life. An objective of a good family, after all, is to prepare its children to be better than a majority of the world’s children.

That children must do something useful with their time is part of the canon of modern parenting. Also that everything the child does has to be laced with the sugar of entertainment. As a result, children are constantly entertained, with only the degree changing, and they have come to expect life to be ceaselessly entertaining. But then there are many beautiful things in life that have to begin in tedium. Tedium has to be first given a chance.

I have started asking my daughter to get bored. It is, in reality, a popular idea and many parents around the world are aware of the charms of boredom.

This year, when I first asked my eight-year-old to get bored, she said I must help her, which seemed like an insult. I asked her to let her mind wander. She instead chose to consider some problems that scientists were struggling to solve. I asked her to figure out where space ended. She lay in bed trying to solve the puzzle. She said space did not end because space was all the time creating more space, like people created more people, which I thought was not a bad consequence of letting the mind wander. But then after an hour she asked if she was real or a video game inside a gigantic iPad, and I thought maybe I should let her watch one of those stupid serials for children on Netflix.

The scholarly view on boredom is that it inspires a child to overcome the ennui by creating something marvellous. It is true that children, when solitary and bored, end up writing stories or painting or taking apart objects to see what is inside. It seems appropriate that most children themselves are magnificent products of two adults in the gentle rot of happy life who then decide to search for greater meaning.

Among psychologists and some parents, there is a celebration of the idea of boredom. Even though I believe in the idea of boredom I feel they are overrating the force of the concept. Many of us, who had a very boring childhood and adolescence, and who did reasonable things as a consequence, did so because we did not have a choice. It was a time, though not long ago, when the world did not try hard to entertain a child. Pilgrimage, then, was vacation. Also, a family’s economic condition and the dysfunctions of parents greatly contributed to a child’s boredom. Boredom was a roll of the dice, and some of us made the best use of it. But children today live in a world where distraction is the very goal of giant industries, and parents can afford to spend a lot of money to entertain them.

Boredom can never be planted in a child because her mind will always try to liberate itself from the lull, and succeed. If we force it on her by denying her the things her peers enjoy, then the moment she finds independence, she would forsake boredom anyway. How then can boredom be instilled as an intellectual subsystem in a little person?

The hypothesis that boredom would inspire an impressive rescue act in a child and make her do stuff is an opportunistic way of looking at a very important sentiment. The whole point of boredom is that it promises no reward, it trains the mind to be solitary and to introspect without the requirement of excitement. If the capacity for boredom is instilled in a child as the ability to be alone without entertainment, excitement, or even purpose, for long periods of time, that would be the seeding of a very useful faculty.

The arch-enemy of introspection is not entertainment, but education. There is a whole stream of very important things a child has to learn, a stream that intensifies as she grows up. It is easy to defame entertainment, and modern parents have done that as well as parents a generation ago had defamed love and sex, but not everyone has the courage to defame education. Children have no choice today but to learn many things that everybody is telling them are important. In time they will learn things that they love, mostly they will learn things they despise. And they will neglect many of their dreams. All through, they are going to be too busy to be bored.

Recently, Bill Gates sent out advice to fresh graduates in a series of tweets. He told them: “AI, energy and biosciences are promising fields where you can make a huge impact. It’s what I would do if starting out today." But his first tweet in the series said that predictions can look very silly in the future, and he had posted a clip of a moment from the film The Graduate, where a man is telling a young man, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word…Are you listening?...Plastics…There’s a great future in plastics."

Yet, it is hard for children to ignore the fields that the world’s most influential people are claiming to be the future. Not surprising then that children are already beginning to learn coding in their summer breaks. In the middle of all this, as they fully ingest the melancholy of preparing for life, it is probably unfair to remind them to practise sitting alone and doing nothing.

Maybe the capacity for boredom is an innate trait, or maybe it is a gift of circumstances, or maybe it is a combination of the two. What is certain is that we will not be able to teach introspective boredom to our children. They will seek a hectic life from the universe, and the universe would most likely grant them that.

Maybe parents have not abolished the summer vacation because summers do get easier as the child grows up. You don’t have to ask them to get bored. They are not in your path the way they were earlier. You don’t know when exactly it happened but suddenly they have friends and gangs and life. And it is you who craves their attention, and it is they who then ask you to go get bored.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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