Tag Archives: children

Long summer holidays, constructive boredom and your children

One of the most powerful parenting techniques is having faith in your child’s ability to resolve a problem. This is especially true around the issue of “boredom”.Snoopy bored

I wrote previously (Boredom: a melancholy truth) that allowing your child to be bored can be a positive experience, just as solving your child’s boredom by always organising structured play can lead to new problems. Paddy O’Donnell, a professor of social psychology at the University of Glasgow, in a study on the impact of structured play on the future abilities of university students, claims that many current students are less confident of making their own decisions. They are so used to being managed by a hovering parent that they prefer it if someone takes charge and directs them, even as young adults.

At the same time, modern, concerned parents don’t want to simply leave children to their own devices. We need to find the balance between a lack of involvement with our children and the tyranny of helicopter parenting – where parents are a 24-hour child entertainer and teacher. We need to cultivate constructive boredom in our children and offer some appropriately “benign neglect”.

With the long summer holiday approaching, here are a few tips that might help you in this quest:

calvin and hobbes brain atrophy

Plan ahead

Why wait until your child’s already bored? At the moment your child decides to announce (over and over again) that they are desperately bored, you will probably be on the phone to your boss, sorting out an office emergency while stirring a pot of pasta sauce. Rather, in a quiet moment sit down with your child and make a “when I’m bored” list. I tried this out with my own nine-year-old son and his first three ideas were: “Play soccer against the wall, make the tallest tower I can with my wooden blocks and make a teepee with sticks.” Add a few ideas of your own and stick the list on the fridge.

For longer activities, consider things such as sleepovers, campouts in the garden and allowing kids to wear pyjamas all day Sunday while amusing themselves. Just remember: while you might suggest these, don’t organise them yourself.

Make resources available

If you have these around the house then the boredom monster can be slain at any time: crayons and coloured cardboard or paper, straws, hammers and nails, spray paint, masks or costumes, a pile of sticks in the garden, discarded computer print-outs, used plastic cartons and bottles, cereal boxes, a collection of fabric scraps and glue. It also helps if you allow one part of the garden to be a play area with sand or mud, or are relaxed enough to allow your children to colonise one corner of the kitchen to concoct their evil brews.

Be actively noncommittal

If your child tries to engage you in solving his boredom, master the art of saying, “Really? Hmmm,” followed by silence. She might lose interest and move away. Or you could say, empathically: “Yes, as a child I was often bored myself,” followed by: “Let’s think of some ideas together.” In other words, try not to leap in with your solutions – rest assured, they will anyway likely be met with scorn.

Maintain safety

It might be good to give your child space to use his imagination, but some safety rules are non-negotiable. Don’t forget to explain that the pool is out of bounds, or leaving the property without permission and playing with fire in the house are forbidden.

Practise boredom

Switch off the TV sometimes, limit the amount of time spent on PlayStations or computer games and have days where no after-school activities are scheduled – in this way, your child learns to engage himself and doesn’t become a complete nag when he’s suddenly feeling ignored or unstimulated.

Read feelings

Maybe your child’s not bored. Maybe she’s crying out for your attention or needs to spend time with a friend after a period of being alone. In this case, ignore everything I’ve just said and spend some quality time with him, giving him your undivided attention.

Ultimately, life is often a solo journey. By trusting your children to be able to cope with the responsibility of sometimes amusing themselves or generating their own ideas and managing downtime, stillness and space, you will do them a great service. And if out of this boredom greater maturity and creativity emerges, you will have done the world a great service

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The Perils of Prize-giving

stripey eraserThe only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing. And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in Matric for ‘Social Awareness and Compassion for Others’. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we all wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time of school prize-givings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prize-giving in the December 4th issue of the Sunday times Lifestyle magazine (04.12.2011). He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation? In two of my previous columns I addressed these issues.

In ‘Pulverising kids with praise’ (Sunday Times 28/03/2010) I considered how easily-earned, excessive praise doesn’t really a child’s build self-esteem from the outside in.

In ‘Your kid is a Loser’ (Sunday Times 12/12/2010) I noted that all children lose some of the time, and some lose most of the time, yet their future success is determined by their persistence over time, not the number of trophies they are currently winning.

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed.  I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to …. “Thanks Mom”, he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prize-giving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning.  Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscars and the Nobel Prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decision. Those tools are called human beings. Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel Prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nobakov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards, makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prize-givings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition: Why Top Ten and not Top Eleven? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three Best Parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prize giving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never ‘got you’?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those,  that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Nonetheless. my award for milk consumption is a good memory, and I am still partial to dairy.

milk carton