by Julia Steiny
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” — Dorothy Parker
A 2013 review of the literature published by Behavior Sciences concludes that boredom motivates a desire for change, new goals, experiences and pursuits. “Boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.” — On the Function of Boredom.
Boredom can be seriously toxic in certain circumstances — like smart kids enduring a tedious lesson. But it can also be just what the doctor ordered.
In the pre-electronics age, a time quickly joining antiquity, my summer break from school was punctuated with boredom sometimes verging on physically painful. Except for the annual two-week family vacation, my parents’ life went on as usual. Entertaining us was not their job. We could play, after all. They worked. Oh, they’d take us to the movies sometimes, the beach, someone’s pool. My father might play ping pong or cards. But essentially we were on our own. They had zero sympathy for our plight.
Even with my big imagination and epic fantasy life, I could fall into a dull passivity that ached with the feeling I was owed distraction and entertainment. On one hot mid-summer day, I sprawled out on the slope of the front lawn for all the neighborhood to see how utterly uncared-for I was. I wanted aliens, traveling circus troupes or any sort of fun-lovers to rescue me with any sort of diverting jumper cables to spark my spoiled, entitled paralysis. I imagine my mother glancing out the window, dishrag in hand, exasperated with her demanding daughter. But it wasn’t her problem.
Since the naked ape became upright, kids have hated boredom so badly that it spurred them to act. Get your own butt off that grass and get engaged in something. When distractions are unavailable, curiosity will set in. Besides passive rescue, what does your inner voice want? What interests it? Let that voice grow louder. It has urges. It has ideas. It wonders…
One solution was to go find a friend. But while my sisters had a wealth of playmates in our big-family neighborhood, the kids my age were all boys and no fun.
I liked making things. Our world was full of tools, scrap wood, sand piles, dirt, water, and random junk for creating environments for imaginary beings or willing pets.
But sometimes the listlessness was so great, I resentfully gravitated towards books. At summer’s start, books could feel like the school from which I’d been liberated. In time though, literary adventures in foreign lands and unfamiliar times were a godsend.
Our local library ran summer competitions. If you read a book and wrote a paragraph about it, assuring the librarians that you didn’t merely skim, they’d post it on corkboard walls put up for the purpose. They gave prizes — the most books read, best writing, best handwriting, best illustration, best summary, best whatever. Prizes included candy, because like constant entertainment, candy was also not then in constant supply. The incentives worked. Soon the neighborhood kids and I were all vying for the library’s honors.
Besides, the library building somehow stayed cool longer than others. Comfortable seats looked out on a shady garden, also a pretty backdrop to daydreams. I scanned the walls to admire my own paragraphs and to monitor the competition. More than once I emerged from a story mortified to see my mother marching at me with pursed lips, wondering what happened to my promise to be home at such-and-such hour?
Oh I know. Books are passe. They’re the sort of thing an older writer might mention as a cure for summer ennui. But these days my electronic in-box is crammed with articles and despairful research on “summer learning loss,” all of which propose solving by giving kids a ton more school. Yes, these days what most kids do in their downtime is largely brain deadening. Still, the educational hand-wringers never suggest that the kids need time to build, roam, investigate, settle disputes with friends, invent games. And they certainly never propose helping them develop pursuits of their own that could ignite curiosity into questions that a nice librarian might help with. As an industry, Education accidently turned books into a colossal chore, when they really can be entertaining and just what kids want. Books speak to and with that inner voice. Video games, TV and texting just shut it out.
As a friend says: attention is currency; spend it wisely. If good things — friends, construction materials and books are at hand — kids will marshal their own attention to concentrate in healthy ways. These articles in my inbox are always looking to provide kids with improving experiences, when what they really need are safe neighborhoods with good libraries and fewer e-distractions, where they can invent themselves and worlds of their own.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.