July 26, 2005
THE BOREDOM MACHINE
A friend of mine who'd been entertaining her grandchildren recently was kind of puzzled about their continual refrain: "I'm bored." She couldn't remember being bored (or at least complaining about it) when she was a kid. Did we, she wondered.
Actually, no. But her question made me start wondering why. And it occurred to me that boredom is an entirely reasonable response to the world we've created for our kids over the past 50 years.
I grew up in a medium sized city in the 1950s. Back then, only a few of us had TVs in our homes -- mammoth pieces of furniture with itty-bitty screens, bad reception, and not-very-interesting programs for kids (Romper Room and Leave It to Beaver were about as good as it got). We all had radios, though, and as we listened to our favorite shows, we filled in the visual blanks with our own imaginations -- what made that ominous creaking noise? what did Lamont Cranston look like?
But mostly, we made our own entertainment. Which was easy to do because there were lots of kids on my block, and we played on the streets, the sidewalks, and the nearby parks. We played ball and Monopoly and cards (my sister sharpening her fingernails to give her a near-lethal edge when we played Slap). We had tea parties with our girlfriends and favorite dollies. If we were flush with cash from babysitting or mowing lawns, we walked or rode our bikes to nearby shops and bakery to spend our money. Or we took the bus to the department stores, museum, library, zoo, or the movies. We also read books, for fun, sometimes playing at being the characters in our favorite stories.
We didn't know enough to appreciate it then, but what we had was the extraordinary freedom of being ignored by adults, who sent us outside to play while they enjoyed their own lives (my parents, for instance, played on the amateur tennis circuit while my brother and sister entertained each other and hunted down the errant balls).
Our parents didn't hover, at least not after the polio vaccine came along and they stopped being terrified of swimming pools. They didn't worry that we might be kidnapped or shot if we got out of their sight. They didn't worry that our childish misbehavior or a missed answer on a test would keep us from getting into Harvard years later. If we broke an arm falling off the jungle bars, it was no big deal; they just took us to the emergency room where we got a cast for our friends to write rude remarks on.
Our parents also didn't feel obliged to keep us continuously entertained. They didn't schedule our every moment with lessons and organized sports. There were no DVD players in our cars, so on long trips, we actually talked to each other. We played word games, had hissy fits, fought, and learned how to make up and be friends again. Our parents didn't drive us every single place we needed to go.
Of course, they didn't have to, either, because we DID live in a city; we DID have neighborhood shops, parks, and libraries; we DID have public transit. How many of today's bored children were raised in suburbs designed for cars, not kids who'd risk their lives if they tried to walk or bike to the mall or a ballpark or a woodland trail?
Another reason we weren't bored, though, is that the only thing we had for comparison was the lives of the kids we knew. There just wasn't anything our lives looked tame and boring next to, except the movies. They did depict more glamorous lives, and movie magazines certainly suggested that the stars had more fun than we did, but none of that ever seemed terribly real to me; it certainly didn't seem a legitimate possibility for my own life. We didn't see kids like us in reality shows or music videos or boy bands, doing exciting, glamorous, or incredibly dumb things, and becoming rich and famous doing them.
We didn't have a sophisticated marketing machine aimed at us, either. We didn't have teen magazines targeting us with ads and 15 minutes of every television hour filled with commercials, all leading us to believe their products would make us as ecstatic as the actors and models pretending to use them. Which means we didn't end up disappointed and still craving every time we bought one of those promises.
Often, when we complain about kids these days, what we're saying is that it's all their fault -- they're ignorant, unmotivated, lazy, with an undeserved sense of entitlement.
But WE're the ones who created their stultifying world. In the name of safety, WE moved them to the suburbs, supervised their every moment, and forbade them to go exploring. In the name of their future success, WE made them into test-takers and robbed them of the sheer joy of finding things out. And many of us, because we're too busy, too frantic, too stressed, gave them entertainment instead of our attention. WE're the ones who gave them the products of other people's imaginations instead of setting free their own.
The way I see it, these kids aren't just bored. They're deprived.
When somebody complains about the younger generation, I won't be nodding my head approvingly. As the kids would say, "That's so-o-o boring." I'd much rather talk about what we can do to give them a world that isn't.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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