The Joys of Doing Nothing

In a world of instant messages, iPhones, and soccer, allowing kids unstructured time may sound like heresy, but it's the greatest gift of all.



The Joys of Doing Nothing

It starts off innocently: a playdate or two for your toddler, maybe a gym class once week. By the time he's in second grade, he's taking art lessons and playing pee-wee baseball and soccer.

A few years later he makes the travel soccer team, which conflicts at times with basketball. But he still manages to squeeze in Boy Scout meetings and saxophone lessons before tackling his homework. You cheer him on during games, even though it may mean sitting in the bleachers, cell phone in hand, as you field calls from your office. You joke that you feel more at home on the road than in your living room. In fact, you are running as fast as you can toward that elusive goal of raising a well-rounded child.

You are stressed and exhausted, and you are not alone. Parenting today often feels like a frantic race in which we are forever a few steps behind. Kids today have half as much free time as they did 30 years ago, notes a national study of 3500 children, 12 and under, released by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. "Children are affected by the same time crunch as their parents," notes Sandra L. Hofferth, a senior research scientist at the institute. 

"As a society, we have talked ourselves into believing that we have to make every moment count, and that we have to fill our children as we would empty vessels," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., co-author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, continues, "Parents feel compelled to give their kids every advantage they can afford. So they cram their days with art, music, sports, and even weekend enrichment programs." Is it any wonder that when youngsters have a free moment, they complain that they're bored? More likely, they simply don't know what to do with themselves.

"There is a myth that doing nothing is wasting time, when it's actually extremely productive and essential," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. "During empty hours, kids explore the world at their own pace, develop their own unique set of interests and indulge in the sort of fantasy play that will help them figure out how to create their own happiness, handle problems with others on their own, and sensibly manage their own time. That's a critical life skill." 

What's more, the pile-on of extra-curricular activities, on top of several hours of homework as they get older, may actually backfire. "Many overscheduled kids are anxious, angry and burned out," notes child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., co-author of The Overscheduled Child. "They display a range of symptoms from headaches and stomachaches to temper tantrums, an inability to concentrate in school, and sleeping problems. In the long run, it may be harder for them to make confident choices and decisions about what they want to do on their own." More importantly, by cramming activities into a child's schedule, you deprive him of something very special: The joy of just being a kid. 

The Parent Trap
Why the pressure to overbook? In this multi-tasking world, in which the push to do more and do it faster is pervasive, perhaps it was only a matter of time that the effects trickled down to childrearing. Yet some experts believe parents have misunderstood the tidal wave of information on child development reported in the last two decades.

"This generation of parents has swallowed whole, and in some cases, is choking on, the belief that the sooner you expose a child to learning, the more he or she will learn," says Rosenfeld. "And if they don't get it during those critical early childhood years, well, forget Harvard."

In fact, there is a wealth of information that proves exactly the opposite. "Children continue to learn and develop throughout childhood," notes Hirsh-Pasek. "But they need time to recharge their batteries and process what they've learned. Free time allows them to explore, to be scientists, discoverers, creators, and innovators. They do that when they build pillow forts in the family room, sail away in a laundry basket to a foreign land, or find the remarkable in the mundane."

Then, too, kids with time to daydream nurture their inner lives. "They practice making mistakes or tolerating what can go wrong — a child calls them names, they're not picked for the school play. They figure out how to steel themselves against such possibilities," says Hirsh-Pasek. "That's self responsibility and self reliance."

Of course, letting kids just hang out sounds much easier than it actually is. We are raising our children in a very different world than the one in which we grew up. Single or working parents must rely on after-school or summer programs to keep kids safe. What's more, there is a body of research that shows that activities outside of school foster confident kids, proud of their accomplishments and challenged by new goals, who do better academically than those who don't.

But in our well-intentioned efforts to give our children the best of everything, perhaps we've forgotten the importance of a balanced life. "As parents, we have a choice," says Hirsh-Pasek. "We can groom our children to be worker bees — to take in information and it spit right back out — or we can help them be creative problem-solvers, to look at a cloud and see dinosaurs or birds, to be energized by their own imaginations and curiosity." That's where doing nothing, sometimes even to the point of being bored, comes in.

Stop the Frenzy
This media-savvy generation is being raised to believe that life is a non-stop rollercoaster of over-the-top phenomenal fun times — and if every moment isn't filled, well, something's wrong. Now is the time to stop the madness and re-order your family priorities. Remember: 

  • Leading a frenetic life is not inevitable or enviable. Parenting is not a competitive sport. So ask yourself, honestly, what makes you think it is. Pressure from other parents or family members? Concern that your child will lack the extra edge to get into a good college? Children, like adults, have their own threshold for stress. Some families handle a busy schedule better than others, and some kids thrive when involved in multiple activities.

    If you sense (by noticing her mood, grades, and health) that your child isn't one of them, or if scrambling from one activity to another is not the way you want to live your life, resist the urge to sign up for another appealing lesson.
  • Be a role model. You are your child's best teacher. If she sees that you value unstructured time, she will, too. "The world is a rich learning environment, without all the frills," says Hirsh-Pasek. Carve out time to turn off your cell phone, stop checking your email, and just hang out, without lamenting that you "should" be doing something instead of "wasting time." Create retreats in your home to beckon everyone: a window seat lined with pillows, a corner filled with art supplies, musical instruments, CDs, a deck of cards. Eliminate, limit, or refuse to buy more high-tech gear such as video and computer games. See what happens.
  • Check in with your child. "The more we fill up their time, the less they do it," says Hirsh-Pasek. Even as early as first grade, involve your child in decision-making and planning. Ask if he feels his days are too busy, or if he wishes he had more time to play with friends, read, or just relax after school. Don't assume you know how he feels.
  • Un-plan. In a blank calendar, fill in a typical week in your child's life, listing each activity and when it's scheduled. Circle unstructured time. Is the schedule weighted too heavily in one direction? Trust your gut. If it feels too busy, it probably is. Or, if your child seems tired, unable to concentrate in school or on homework, has frequent meltdowns or difficulty sleeping, she may be on overload.
  • Schedule unstructured family time. Keep it sacred. What do your kids want to do on Saturday? Stay in pajamas all day, order pizza and watch a movie? Go bike riding, dance to favorite CDs, plant tulip bulbs?
  • Make sure kids get enough sleep. Turn off the TV and computer; turn on the answering machine. Create a bedtime routine that includes at least 15 minutes of calm, soothing activities such as reading, chatting, or listening to music.
  • Tune out "I'm bored!" cries. Despite your efforts, it will happen. And it doesn't mean you're not being a good-enough parent. Instead of jumping in to offer entertainment, make a few suggestions, be strong, and let her figure out for herself how to fill her time. "More often than not, I find that it's the parents, not the kids, who are fearful that their child will lose out than that children who are pushing to do more," says Hirsh-Pasek.
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