Monday, December 13, 2010

Boredom and the White Cloth of Surrender

I wonder how many times each day a kid bursts out of a bedroom overflowing with books, art supplies, and toys in order to sigh to a parent, "I'm so BOOOORED." It's probably equivalent to the number of times an adult looks around in a panic and thinks, "How am I going to get the lawn mowed, the meat thawed for dinner, the dog walked, and the office budget report completed before I fade to black in front of Real Housewives?"

Remember childhood boredom? When you used to cast around your home wonder WHAT you were going to do with the long weekend afternoon stretched out in front of you? The concept of having "nothing to do" for even fifteen minutes has become as remote to me as the summit of Mount McKinley. If I'm in my house, there is always something to be done, whether it's folding a load of laundry or returning work emails or replanting the anemic looking ivy in the living room. I've often said that for a real vacation, I don't require a spa or a resort or a plane ticket. I just want to go to a Motel 6 and slip into something more comfortable, like ennui.

And yet kids flee from boredom like it's broccoli-covered beets.

I regard a bored child as I do a youngster who coughs on me without covering his mouth or touches all the cookies on a plate before selecting one. It's not necessarily the child's fault; they just need some redirection from an attentive adult.

That's why I instituted a zero tolerance policy for boredom in our house. More accurately, I encourage boredom, but not the bemoaning thereof.

It was probably five years ago when someone in my house said, "I'm bored," and I first said, "That's fine. I need help dusting. I'll get you the cloth." By the fourth or fifth time this sequence unfolded, the kids knew I meant it and would clap their hands over their own mouths as the b-word escaped, then scurry off to their bedrooms like cockroaches before a flashlight. "No, no, I didn't say I was bored, I was going to…." before the door slammed shut.

Even more dramatic is their reaction when an unsuspecting friend comes over to play and, at some point during the visit, stops by where I'm washing dishes in the kitchen to inform me, "I'm bored." My kids scramble as I head towards the closet where we keep the cleaning supplies. "No she's not, Mom, she's not, we're gonna go play in the backyard, bye Mom," they yell, pushing the confused offender before them before I can make the ceremonial presentation of the Boredom Cleaning Cloth.

I credit my mother-in-law for reinforcing my embrace of tedium. When the kids were still tiny she said to me, "There is just no need for a child to say they're bored, ever. A kid needs that room to let their minds wander and to think up new things. Don't fall for it." As someone who personally conceived of the entire Kid's Choice Awards event while staring out the window on a drive to Lake Placid with my mom, my aunt Margaret, and my cousin Michael back in 1977, I can certainly vouch for the creativity that bubbles up when pre-planned activities aren't provided. (Had I not been so distracted by a simultaneous Little House on the Prairie obsession, I probably would have made something of it, too.) 

Giving in to boredom takes the parent off the cruise-director hook. The other day my bored 4th grader and her friend spent three hours planning and staging "Animal Wicked," the tale of what happened in Oz before Dorothy dropped in, with all parts played by stuffed animals. The male lead was played by a fuzzy snake wearing leg warmers.  I promise you I would never have thought to suggest any aspect of that activity, and definitely would not have cast the purple cow as the green Wicked Witch of the West (too pitchy.) But the berry-colored bovine turned in a triumphant performance that has me looking forward to seeing her take on Evita.

In fact, watching the juicy projects and plans my kids and their friends come up with while bored makes me a little ashamed that I can encourage it in them, but not myself. It's so tempting to appear busy all the time, to use it as some kind of a proof that we are important to the people around us - bosses, clients, spouses, children. In our pinched and worried world, there is something brave about saying, "I am not going to do anything for the hour," and just seeing where it takes us. 

In a sense, not ever letting yourself be bored as an adult amounts to a voluntary handover of the creative spark that might help us come up with better, smarter, more colorful ways to live our lives.

So I'm going to see if the Boredom Cleaning Cloth is bidirectional. Next time I am tempted to take it out and clean up dust that isn't yet bothering anyone, I'll sentence myself to 15 minutes hard labor: staring into space and allowing my mind to wander.


  1. Here's to more boredom in our lives!

  2. The boys really love it when they tell me they're bored and I respond, "Lu-u-u-u-ckeee! I wish I was bored..."

  3. One of my favorite lines from Mother-of-the-Year-NOT Betty Draper..."Only boring people are bored". I say this every time I hear the B word out of my angels' mouths. Then I flick my cigarette ashes on their heads.

  4. Aside from the ash-flicking, I'm right there with Mrs. D.


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