Bursting boredom

. October 18, 2012.

“I’m bored.”

Those two words can strike fear — or at least irritation — into any parent’s heart. Now that summer is upon us, they are words that can make us wonder if it’s us or them. Are they bored because they have temporarily run out of things to do, or are they bored because we haven’t provided anything to do?
When I was growing up, I knew better than to tell my mother I was bored. Washing dishes, vacuuming, cleaning the litter box — my mom could always find something for me to do, even as a preschooler. She didn’t bother to schedule anything for me. She didn’t call to arrange play dates, nor did I have summer camps or enrichment courses to attend. I had toys, a public library and a big backyard. The rest was up to me.

Letting imaginations run wild

So I became a voracious reader. I made up games, bugged my siblings and learned how to ride a bike. I spent my early summer years doing things that weren’t planned or provided to me. I’ve tried to give my children the same gift of boredom, to let their imaginations run wild without the structure of school. No summer camps or classes aside from music lessons. About the only structure to our days involves the hours the pool is open.

Other parents feel differently. Towards the end of the school year I got several fliers advertising enrichment camps and other activities to fill summer days. They looked good, but too much like school. But should we fill our children’s days? Especially in the summer, when the living is supposed to be easy?

William Doherty and Barbara Z. Carlson, in their book “Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World,” cite a national study to support their view that free time — including summertime — is becoming extinct. According to the study done by the University of Michigan, since the 1970s children have lost 12 hours per week of free time, including a 25 percent drop in playing and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities.

There can, however, be a balance between “empty days” and “every minute accounted for.” All too soon, our young ones will be teenagers with part-time jobs, college prep classes and social lives. Now, when there are no responsibilities, they should have the chance to be kids. Plan some activities, but don’t account for every minute.

“We want the summer to be carefree but we do need to limit things like TV and PlayStation,” says Tammie Morman, a guidance counselor for St. Michael the Archangel school. “There are days that need to be unscheduled but some kids work better when they are scheduled.”

Make it fun

Morman says a family meeting can be an important part of summer planning. Come prepared with a list of potential family outings or activities — ranging from miniature golf to overnight trips. See what everyone is interested in, and plan activities around work schedules. Consider setting goals such as reading five books over the course of the summer, or learning how to swim. Make it fun, and the kids will buy in.

“Planning ahead is a good idea, but also plan for days when they can do what they want,” she says. “A day of absolutely nothing is good.”

I’ve noticed the more downtime my children have, the more creative they get. Just the other day they built a fort on the front lawn consisting of beach towels, umbrellas and bicycles.  Art supplies don’t last long in our house because they are constantly used to make dollhouses, cardboard guitars and pretend schoolwork.

And if necessary, I’ll use the advice given to me by their former preschool teacher. Fill a jar with jobs ranging from sweeping the floor to washing the dog. Jobs that are doable and not too terrible, but onerous enough they will think twice before complaining to me that they are bored.

I guess my mother was ahead of her time.