Don’t Just Do Something

I’ve heard that today’s kids have about half as much time to spend doing nothing as kids did thirty years ago. Some may consider this a good thing because, after all, if they’re not doing nuthin’ they must be doin’ somep’n. And that had to be good, right?, as long as what they’re doing is “enrichment”.

I’m wondering, though: might there not be such a thing as too much enrichment? When I look back to the summer vacations of my childhood, I see the “summertime” of the old Gershwin song: fish were jumping and the livin’ was easy. As a parent, I kinda’ regret not having given my kids as much unstructured indolence as I myself had, growing up.

It’s not that I wanted to deny them. I had to bow to context. Times had changed. The only rivers in our city were rivers of traffic. There was no old fishing hole. Debby and I both worked. We couldn’t make it without two incomes and we both had carrers. And so, like most modern, middle-class parents, we got our kids into good programs that kept them safe while keeping them busy learning and developing their talents.

Don’t get me wrong: well-designed enrichment programs are a wonderful thing. Many, many kids deserve much, much more of them. But I’m aware that we modern parents don’t sign our kids up for as many activities as we do sheerly because we’ve made a calculated decision that structured time is better for our kids than unstructured.

The real force driving all this programming is the nature of our post-industrial society. Most parents work, many are now single parents, and ever fewer households feature several generations living under one roof with grandparents home to watch the kids.

School days typically end before workdays, leaving a problematic patch of time. And then there’s summer vacation, when parents really have to scramble to keep their kids safe and busy.

I remember a brochure I once ran across from a place called the Aspen Institute, which markets educational programming for kids. This brochure aimed a sinister question at parents: “How many days can you invent amusing activities and outings that will keep your teen out of trouble?” The presumption seemed to be that whenever kids are not doing “amusing activities and outings” devised by adults, they’re getting into trouble.

That’s scaremongering, of course, especially when the brochure goes on to report that, according to some California nonprofit, “youths” start committing crimes around noon in the summer months, as compared to 3 p.m. during the school year.

The truth is, of course, that most kids go whole days without committing a single crime. But there is a more realistic anxiety that grips the imagination of many parents when they think about their kids being idle and unscheduled, a picture of bloated children lolling glassy-eyed in front of rot-brain TV shows while guzzling potato chips and twittering friends… while other people’s kids are in after school or vacation programs, learning to write sonnets in Latin and mastering digital photography—in short, getting ahead.

And so the kids go marching off to art camps, science camps, math camps, soccer camps…What about becoming-one’s-own-self camp?

In a pre-planned program, no matter how much great stuff kids may be learning, there’s one thing they’re not learning: how to fill blank time at their own pace in their own way. In supervised activities, they discover things someone has decided to show them. On their own time, left to their own devices, they discover what they gravitate toward, what they’re good at, what they might want to learn.

Journalist Anna Quindlan once wrote an essay celebrating “boredom” in which she cited psychological research suggesting that “what we might call ‘doing nothing’ is when … creativity comes to call.” Staying home may not necessarily be the answer, at least not for all kids, because one thing most kids want and need with great urgency is other kids (and not just siblings).

When my daughter Elina was about eighteen, she and I got to reminiscing about the good old days one time. I asked her what she thought about all the activities we signed her up for as a child, as compared to times when she had no activities.

“I still had activities,” she demurred. “For a little kid, there’s no such thing as no activities, really. Everything you do is an activity.”

She reminded me that some of her favorite summer camps didn’t offer much more than a safe place to hang out with other kids, in proximity to stuff they might like to play around with, in a place they might like to explore. Plus timely snacks.

In one such place, a day-camp called Pine Lake, she and her friends got into building a fort. Every day, I remember, she’d come home excited about new features they’d added. Evidently it was turning into much more than a fort. She spoke of towers—secret rooms—moats… Amazingly enough, she and her pals were building all this with virtually no equipment, just strings and rags and whatever they could find in the forest.

At last one day we parents were invited to drop in and see what our kids had been doing all month. Elina could hardly contain her excitement. She led us into the woods and stopped triumphantly. Here! But all we saw was a sign that read: DO NOT ENTER! There was nothing to enter. No fort, only the woods.

Then gradually, with guidance from the kids, we were made to realize that these few random sticks tied together with ribbons, and those few random stones lined up over there, and a few other such faint traces were what they kids were calling their “fort.”

By the standards of the adult world in which I live and work (and compete), they had just wasted a perfectly good month. All that time and energy invested, and what had these kids produced? Nothing!

Donald Trump would have fired the lot of them.

What they did have, however, and abundantly, at the end of their month of doing nothing, was the ability to look at a couple of sticks and a handful of stones and see spires and dungeons, gates and walkways, a fairytale castle, a romantic palace, whole storybook cities…

And come to think of it, that’s what a person needs to write novels, compose songs, discover new principles of science, invent, pioneer, create.

If that’s what one can learn from doing nothing, then I’m all in favor of a graffiti I once saw scribbled on a wall: “Don’t just do something–stand there.”

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