Boredom, imagination, and childhood

daydreaming sockmonkey

daydreaming sockmonkey (Photo credit: Sarabbit)


I read this article about children and imagination and, since one of my goals as a parent is helping my children have the same ability to fill hours with daydreams that I had, it caught my notice. Parents have many reasons for the things we want for our children, and often there’s at least some narcissism where we wish for them to resemble us. In this case–my hope that they can daydream and fantasize as much as I did–it isn’t narcissism; it’s just realizing how much empty time there is in life that we can fill more enjoyably with imagination than with any alternative. It’s also the reason I carry my kindle with me when I expect a long wait. It makes the long wait something to appreciate instead of something to resent or get stressed over, which is a nice quality-of-life improvement in a world that sometimes involves a lot of waiting. Daydreaming was helpful in filling the long empty summer hours of my childhood. Unfortunately, double-edged-swordlike, it also filled more elementary school hours than it should have, was a very effective form of procrastination in later school years, and helped me terrify myself with horrible possibilities whenever I was left home alone at night and saw a shadow outside or whenever someone was ten minutes late picking me up from school. I’d like to spare my children the nightmares I gave myself imagining axe murderers outside my window, but I think it’s a price worth paying for having a nice fantasy life. This article refers to studies that suggest that having such a fantasy life is actually even more useful than I expected in that it apparently encourages people to plan better for the future and show more responsible, delayed-gratification behaviors now. Who knew? All the more reason I hope to encourage their imaginations. (Plus, I actually know the psychologist they cite, though he probably doesn’t remember me, which makes me feel in-the-know and connected in a way I rarely experience!)


Encouraging kids’ imaginations is tougher than wanting it, though, and I often wonder how well I’m doing. As with curiosity and a wish to learn, I think one of the biggest things a parent can do for imagination is to just get out of the way. Kids are curious and imaginative without any encouragement. The question is how to get them to stay that way. That’s not to say that they can’t be encouraged to even more creativity, but I think if I can manage to avoid damaging their curiosity and creativity and love of learning, then I’ve done them more good than any games or tricks could do. And one of the main ways I get out of the way and let them be creative is by letting them be bored. Bored kids can be a real challenge to a parent’s peace of mind. They bicker with each other. They bicker with us. They make messes and go through closets and raid the kitchen and whine and do all sorts of things that can be irritating to parents, and so it’s very tempting to fill their days so they won’t drive us bonkers. I certainly don’t think we parents should just leave them home with nothing to do and nowhere to go and no one to play with and think we’re doing them a big favor. I’m not advocating for doing nothing all the time, just for doing nothing some of the time. They’re out of school for the summer, and I don’t have them in summer camp because I think it’s good for them to have unstructured time when they don’t have entertainment handed to them pre-planned by adults, when they have to think of what to do and who to do it with and how to do it. Maybe it won’t help them at all and I’m just giving them long hours of boredom, but I hope that I’m giving them practice at motivating themselves, entertaining themselves, and planning for themselves.


Did you have an overactive imagination in childhood too? What made you daydream then? What about now? Do you think boredom helps? How do you encourage your kids’ creativity? Do you think they’re better off being scheduled and stimulated or left to their own devices or somewhere in between?


No time to daydream? Why imagination is still key for kids –


In defense of helicopter parents

It’s all the rage these days to vilify helicopter parents. They annoy colleges and high schools and elementary schools and coaches and principals and teachers and college admission officers. They handicap their children by hovering and preventing them from having freedom or responsibility or new experiences or failure. They make all the other parents irrationally defensive as we try explaining why we aren’t bad parents if we let our kids walk to the library  alone or have a fight with a friend without our intervening with suggested solutions or send in a college essay on a topic of their own choosing. We’ve all heard the outrageous helicopter parent stories. I read an article last week about how American parents are all overprotective. None of us let our children ride their bikes or go to the store or use a knife or pour their own drinks, while parents everywhere else do, and so our children are growing up to be infantile, helpless followers with low self-esteem. Or so this article claims. I let my children do those things, and I’m American, so the article can’t be completely right, but I get the point.

I agree that it’s unhealthy for parents to be overprotective or too intrusive into their children’s lives and that helicopter parents ARE overprotective and too intrusive. If ever a helicopter parent there was, my  mother-in-law is one because…Her youngest child is now 29, and as far as I know, my husband is the only one of the four who has actually bought his own car, and then, only because I told him to tell her to leave us alone. She calls to remind us to write thank-you notes. She sent me an article about frostbite when she thought my oldest son was underdressed for the cold, and she has lectured me on various health issues in complete disregard of the fact that I’m a DOCTOR!  She cannot be in my house without taking over the parenting of both my kids and my husband and me, and she cannot remember to knock before entering my house. For heaven’s sake, when my husband thought he might have a problem with grinding his teeth, she spoke to her dentist about it and then called us with potential appointment times for him the see her dentist. The important thing is that she means well. She isn’t trying to control. She isn’t trying to intrude. She just wants to help, and what makes her happy is working on behalf of her children. She has hovered over all four of them, and they have all turned out to be happy, healthy, productive people with healthy, supportive relationships, good jobs that they enjoy and find fulfilling, and nurtured and loved children. All her children have grown into the kind of adults that parents hope their children will be. She didn’t ruin them, contrary to all the dire predictions in the helicopter-parent hate literature. Is she too intrusive? Yes, except when they tell her to mind her own business. Does she do things for them that any normal adult should do for themselves? Yes, except when they tell her not to. She means well. She loves her children. She has to be reminded to give them space, but she does it when she’s reminded. There are worse things in a parent than caring too much. There are worse things than doing too much for your children, protecting them too much from pain and illness and cruel people. There are worse things than taking too much interest in their lives and their friends and their education. It’s all the rage to vilify helicopter parents. How about accepting their good intentions while trying to convince them to ease the iron grip on their children’s lives and vilifying the parents who just don’t care?

The Free Parent’s Manifesto


School has changed a lot since I was a kid, and I think most of the changes have been for the better. For one thing, my kids don’t fear their teachers the way I feared mine. There seems to be more emphasis on kindness and age-appropriate expectations than there was, so the teachers seem more willing to work with the kids’ needs rather than punishing the kids for such things as needing a chance to get up and move around once in a while or needing to go to the bathroom. My kids can have water bottles at their desks so they can actually drink during the day, while we had to beg and grovel for a minute at the water fountain, only to have the teacher claim that we weren’t really thirsty and just wanted to get out of the room. My kids have three recesses each day, which is two more than we had and which means that they never have more than two hours at a stretch during which they’re expected to sit still and silent, and as far as I can tell, kids aren’t allowed to torment each other during recess, which is another welcome change. The school has an official anti-bullying policy and procedure in case of complaints, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was in school and bullying was considered part of the educational environment. The teachers now seem to actually like kids, while the teachers then seemed to think kids were a necessary evil (I’ll grant that impression might have more to do with my being adult now or with this particular school compared to the particular school I was in, rather than any actual change in the type of person who becomes a teacher. Then again, it might not, since women now have more stigma-free career options than the women in my teachers’ generation, who really didn’t have many other choices whether they liked kids or not–but that’s another subject). All that seems unchanged is that many gym teachers are still bullies who obviously like the athletes and dislike the rest of the class.

What I really wish hadn’t changed is parties. We have a beginning of the year picnic and party. There’s a party before winter break. There’s an end of the year party. There are parties for various milestones during the year, when the class completes any big unit or project, usually two or three per class per year for these. I love going to the school and seeing my kids’ classrooms. I love seeing their artwork on the walls or seeing the play they put on to dramatize the part of history they just studied. I appreciate the school’s efforts to include the parents, to encourage the kids to have a good attitude about school, and to incorporate more interesting ways of learning and reviewing than just tests and papers, such as plays and field trips and themed art galleries. I would have no problem with all these parties IF WE DIDN’T HAVE TO BRING REFRESHMENTS.

But we do. Every time I turn around, we’re divvying up supplies to be provided by each parent in the class. This person brings the plastic tablecloth. This one brings plates and napkins. I bring juice or pretzels or fruit or cups or whatever hasn’t been claimed by the time I actually see the email. I’m always the last one to see the email, I think, because I’m the only one (or so it seems) who doesn’t check email at least once an hour. I don’t want to make another trip to the store to buy pretzels or paper plates for 40 people. Why can’t we start the year or finish the year or finish the unit or look at the kids’ projects without ANOTHER party full of junk food and garbage? Why can’t I just eat a snack before I come? The parties never last more than 30 minutes anyway. Honestly, is it so difficult for everyone to go 30 minutes without a snack and a drink? I don’t mind that we have to get flowers for all the teachers and give teacher gifts at least twice a year, at the end of the first semester and at the end of the year. I’ll grant that I think it’s silly that it’s so compulsory that it’s hardly a gift anymore, and I’ll grant to still being annoyed that when I brought the flowers for the first grade teachers before winter break, the “room mother” commented that I’d left the price tag on them (I looked and looked but didn’t see the tag. She glanced once and saw it!). But the teachers work hard, and they deserve the attention. But I DO mind having to buy food for everyone when we’re a couple miles from our own perfectly-well-stocked kitchens and had lunch two hours ago. I do mind having to show up twenty minutes early to set up, when coming to the party in the first place involves waking my two-year-old from his nap and getting there early involves basically not letting him nap at all. I’m sure the room mothers (I’ve been one several times, but I never drafted the whole class into potluck entertaining) think the refreshments add to the festive atmosphere. I think they add to my list of errands and significantly diminish my enjoyment. I could not volunteer to bring anything, but of course, the list of necessary supplies is always exactly calculated to equal the number of families so each family brings one thing, which means that not bringing something would make me a deadbeat.

I’m not a deadbeat. I volunteer extensively to help my kids’ classes. I drive on every field trip. I run errands for the teachers. I pick up supplies they need for actual schooling, and when I’ve bought supplies for the school, I’ve never asked them to reimburse me and have considered the expense a donation. When one of the teachers needed to leave the school and find another job, I wrote her a letter of recommendation, and when circumstances changed and she didn’t need to leave after all, I was genuinely happy for her, for the school to be keeping her, and for my younger children who might still have her for a teacher. But I don’t want to buy pretzels for the class. I just bought snacks for girl scouts two weeks ago when I substituted at the last minute as the parent volunteer (voluntarily, I might add). I have to buy snacks for a community youth group in two weeks. The parent draft boards assume that if they require each parent to contribute on a rotating schedule–all families must volunteer to help at least x times per year–no one is being overburdened. But we ARE overburdened because there are so many groups and so many parties and we apparently can’t figure out how to be happy or celebratory or just plain friendly without potato chips and disposable dishes and a requirement for the parents to provide these things. I’d pay an upfront fee to cover the cost of refreshments if it would spare me yet another last minute trip to Party City for plastic tablecloths and yet another reply-all email conversation to divvy up the duties.

I don’t remember snacks at every activity when I was a child because WE DIDN’T HAVE THEM! And you know what? We survived. I am not scarred by the lack of juice I suffered on the last day of first grade. I also don’t remember parent volunteers at everything. I know with absolute certainty that my parents were never field trip drivers, group leaders, girl scout chaperones, or room parents. And you know what? Even without drafting all the parents into “volunteering” for these activities, they still happened because the parents who were interested enough in each activity volunteered, and when they did it, it was really volunteering and they didn’t mind doing more for that activity than the other parents. I know, because I’m that kind of volunteer on several fronts. I don’t mind in the least that I’m working harder on those things than other people are, partly because it’s truly voluntary and partly because I care about those things. I don’t care AT ALL about popcorn at the end of the year party. And I DO resent it.

The school recently announced that next year they would require all families to provide 20 hours of volunteer service. What’s wrong here? You can’t require volunteerism. I have definitely done more than twenty hours of work for the school this year, but I resent that requirement. I don’t tally up the time I’ve spent helping out, and I don’t want to have to. I don’t want to have to track it and make sure I’m staying on course. I don’t want to compete with other parents for the good jobs like going on a field trip rather than the bad jobs like–I don’t know–weeding the garden. And I don’t mind if I give more effort to the school than some other families whose parents both work. They have less time to give and more things to give, and that’s fine with me. They can provide new sports equipment while I provide transportation for a field trip. It works out nicely with little resentment until you start measuring contributions only in hours spent and requiring “volunteer service.”

It’s time for us to call off the conscription of parents by other parents. If there aren’t enough volunteers to run an activity, then the activity should die; it’s not carrying its own weight in our lives. If there aren’t enough volunteers to organize five big parties per class per year, then we need fewer parties or we need them to be simpler. The point of girl scouts is girl scouts. The point of youth activities is the activity. The point of the end of the unit and end of the year parties is to celebrate the kids and what they’ve learned. I can do that without any crackers in my mouth or cheese squares on my plate. So can everyone else.

An Accomplished Woman

My kids are better than I am. I don’t mean they’re better looking, cuter, smarter, more fun, funnier, nicer, or just generally better, though they are all those things. They’re more efficient. Here’s my proof.

What I’ve accomplished in the past few days- aside from the essentials like grocery shopping, meal prep, cleanup, and driving to and from school.

  1. Place scholastic book club order
  2. Write this post (though, I should note, I don’t have time to finish it today, so it won’t be published until days after I’m writing it- does it still count as an accomplishment?)
  3. Waste obscenely large amounts of time trying to do worthwhile things and failing

I would list taking my kids to the park as a success except

  1. it’s really one of the essentials I’ve excluded from the list. Taking them outside to play on a playground should be a given, not an accomplishment.
  2. it ended with a broken arm.

What I have NOT accomplished

  1. Two failed attempts to place said scholastic book club order online before calling customer service for help. Silly me, I was using the wrong browser.
  2. One read-aloud e-book purchase for my six-year-old, only to discover that this e-book doesn’t have the read-aloud feature, which was the ONLY reason I was buying it instead of borrowing the book from the library
  3. Failed search for a deleted e-mail from my oldest son’s teacher. My e-mail program is set on an overly enthusiastic empty-trash schedule, so all the previous deleted messages, including the one I needed, are gone. This wouldn’t be a problem if the school sent their messages to the e-mail address I TOLD them to use–once on paper and twice by phone–instead of the one I have told them not to use, but I’m afraid to correct them again, lest I have to add that attempt to my list of failures.
  4. Fail to download songs for my toddler to a toy that’s supposed to support these downloads but doesn’t
  5. Failed search all over the house for the toy money that goes with the toy cash register
  6. Failed search for one kindle
  7. Make a lot of ready-to-do activities and projects for my two youngest children. Okay, I did accomplish that–I actually made the games and activities–but they don’t want to do them, so it counts as a fail.

By contrast, here’s what my kids have accomplished

  1. Break two bones
  2. Erase my dry-erase calendar for this month
  3. Make several picture books which they sold to my husband (pushover) for $1 each
  4. Glue advertisements for their books and their bookstore to my kitchen cabinets. Glue, not tape. They used tape to make the books and glue to hang the posters. Why?
  5. Spoil one batch of rice by opening the rice cooker before it was done
  6. Tear twenty pages out of one book
  7. Distribute one rock collection throughout one room
  8. Lose one kindle
  9. Extract one box from the garbage three times, each time scolding me not to throw it away
  10.  Empty all the clothes out of one closet and two dressers three times
  11. Steal an iPad and watch cartoons on Netflix behind my back three time for a total of two hours

See how much more effective my children are than I am? Where was I while they were doing all this stuff? I’m not sure. I was probably putting clothes back in the closet, or trying to salvage dinner, or on the phone with customer support.

I think I should start counting those bare essentials–feeding everyone, keeping them all reasonably safe (broken bones aside), taking them to the park, driving to and from school, reading to them, playing with them, cleaning up after them, arguing with them to get them to clean up after themselves, intervening in fights, watching tricks, listening to stories, answering questions, hugging and kissing and cuddling and bathing and dressing and generally adoring them. When I think of it that way, I don’t feel like such a failure. Maybe that’s a lesson we parents must learn.

In the wild

You can’t see the flock of white pelicans and black swans in the water.

Yesterday, I took my two youngest boys to the zoo, and it was great. It was one of the beautiful days that make me especially glad that I stay home with my kids, because who would want to spend such a day in an office and their kids to waste it in a daycare building? Or, horrors, their kids go to the zoo and enjoy the day but with someone else! So the zoo trip was a piece of cake, except for the hour-long struggle with a toddler who didn’t want to walk but refused to let me carry him. He wanted his stroller, which was conveniently in our garage, and which he has never wanted before yesterday.

As we were walking up a hill towards the big cats, there were four waves of zookeepers, some in groups of three or four, some alone, who came running down the hill, carrying large nets. One of them, as she ran past me, said into her radio, “We’re on our way.” Then a golf cart zoomed up to her, waited for her to jump in, and then whipped a U-turn and took off the other way. I really REALLY want to know what was going on. The curiosity is killing me. I wonder, When does curiosity cross into nosiness?

Maybe ten minutes later, we saw most of the zookeepers, but not all, walk back up the hill, carrying their nets (which were still dry- is that a clue?), looking perfectly calm. I assume that means no one died, animals included. I also make that assumption based on the lack of mention of a zoo accident in the news. I thought about asking what happened, but I would have had to run to catch up with them before they walked into an employees-only area. And while I am DYING of curiosity, I wasn’t willing to make a spectacle of myself. There you see my priorities dignity/not-being-a-spectacle trumps curiosity/voyeurism/nosiness.

I console myself that what I imagine might have happened is almost certainly more interesting than what actually did. Anyone want to guess what was going on? Tell me a story!

Life is a circus

I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. Or one cast at least a glancing blow. Why, you ask (or maybe you don’t).

Circus: vuurspuger (1)

Circus: vuurspuger (1) (Photo credit: doenietzomoeilijk)

Yesterday, I made dinner! Most of the family even ate it, except my six-year-old, who never eats anyway. I watched my children do their new tricks! Look, they can jump off the top of the slide! Look, they can jump off the top of the fence! I kept my four-year-old from falling off a teetering three-legged patio table he was using as a stepping stool to climb over the fence into the neighbor’s yard! (FYI, tables really need four legs.) I explained meanings of words I wrote to my hovering nine-year-old while trying to convince him to stop standing over my shoulder. I woke up in the night to find my husband replaced by that same six-year-old, whom I like to call “the kicker.” Want to guess why?

I forced myself to run this morning, and when I returned, the children swarmed me, needing tape, needing someone to sign their homework, needing chocolate milk, needing a diaper change, needing a sketch book for school by tomorrow. You would think their father was invisible, given how many needs they stored up for me. My four-year-old has already has his first crying jag of the day, because I wouldn’t buy him a new toy car at CVS, where I had stopped to buy the urgently-needed sketch pad because I was too lazy to drive all the way to Target. He insisted that he doesn’t like “anything in the universe,” because I wouldn’t buy a $6 toy police car. Now, I plan to spend a luxurious few minutes letting the two children who are still at home now wreak havoc while I have some more coffee. Maybe I’ll even try to write a little. I can barely think in complete sentences. It’s lucky for me that complete sentences are optional.

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