I hope your kids are bored.
And I hope you’re not doing anything about it.
OK, hold on, don’t be mad, let me explain.
In the world’s least-shocking-statement award, Psychology Today reported earlier this month that “mothers are drowning in stress.” Not only that, but according to Making Motherhood Work, published last month by sociologist Caitlyn Collins after spending five years studying parenthood in four wealthy western countries, “U.S. moms have it the worst.”
As Collins points out, there is an utter failure in our country at the policy level (“Of all Western industrialized countries, the U.S. ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies”). This is exacerbated because, as economists Deopke and Zilibotti point out in their new book, Love, Money & Parenting, U.S. mothers paradoxically now work more weekly hours then their mothers did (70% of mothers now work, compared to 47% in 1975), AND spend more time actively with their children: Deopke and Zilibotti show that from 1970 to 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American mothers added “an additional hour and forty-five minutes of parent-child interaction per day.” Per day! (How is that even possible?!)
Despite our good intentions, all this extra attention is not only stressful for us, but…it turns out…is bad for our children! Here comes the argument for why you should be happy when your children are bored.
Paula Fass, historian of American childhood, writes, “Today’s parents are much more often seen as hovering than hands-off, and their faults lie in excessive supervision, not the reverse.” This “over-parenting” is exactly what Julie Lythcotte-Haims warned about in her January talk at the JCC. As Julie warned, there’s a cliff ahead – and it’s called the-rest-of-their-life. Here’s the calculus on this one: the more we’re involved in our children’s minutiae now, the less they’ve exercised their muscles of independence, the worse off they are later. It’s a pretty straight shot (more from Julie on how this works).
The only problem is, as nearly every parenting book written in the past five years agrees on, we are embedded in a culture which screams at us, “Do more! You are not good enough! Your kid is not good enough!”
Schools are hard to get into. The middle class is disappearing. We’re about to become the first generation worse off financially then our parents. And, concurrently, an explosion of neurological and psychological research into child development yields acute insight into how to train children to learn and grow in particular ways. All of this – the push to spend more time with our children, during a period in which mothers are working in vastly greater numbers – leads to the now-obviousness, and compounded nature, of maternal stress conjoined with an ossifying of adult-dependence by children. (Kim Brooks offers a highly-readable, deeply-insightful perspective on this)
Beyond making parents (and mothers in particular) overwhelmed with stress, there’s a buried secret here: children do not need us in their lives nearly as frequently as we think (or hope). This is not only true for middle and high schoolers, but our young ones as well. (Yes, even our crawlers!!)
KJ Dell’Antonia recognizes this in her book published this summer, “How to be a Happier Parent”: “We expect our constant attendance itself to be enough to get the job done. We show up relentlessly, as though looking for a good attendance award, when we might teach our children more by being less present.”
I so loved that line. It gave me permission, and I hope you as well, to be less present. To accept that you are already present – and worthy – enough. That your unconditional love is the ingredient your child needs, not your unconditional presence. That they need to carry your love around with them; they don’t need to carry YOU around with them.
Talking this idea through with a friend recently, a parent to a newborn and a toddler, she nodded her head and smiled: “Yea yea yea, that’s what I call ‘horizontal parenting’.” Intrigued, I asked what she meant. “Here’s how it goes: I lie down on the couch, horizontal. You play on the rug with your toys. We stay out of each other’s way. That’s the whole thing.” This idea of staying out of our children’s play has caught traction recently, with some pointing out that until recent generations, consensus parenting advice was to stay away from children’s play and amusements (thank you Rachel Yadgard for that link!).
Don’t play with your kids? Yes, you’re reading that right. Know when to not play or otherwise involve yourself in their activities. Don’t feel compelled to always offer stimulation, always have them excited about something. As the NY Times reported last month:
Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting (I guess this is my friend’s “horizontal parenting”), grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. In an interview with GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom,” he said. (I knew a Lin-Manuel quote would pull our parents in here!)
Consider that Jennifer Senior reported in 2015 that in middle and upper class families, “each individual child, in our culture of fearful and controlling parenting, is subject to constant attention, vigilance, supervision, surveillance.” Contrast that with Annette Lareau’s research that in families where parents DID NOT invest themselves in their children’s play, children “tended to show more creativity, spontaneity, enjoyment, and initiative in their leisure pastimes” compared to children whose parents were heavily invested in their play and leisure activities.
Look at those lists of qualities. Which do we want for our children?
Our children do not always have to be accomplishing something. Whimsy is good! Boredom is healthy! And, significantly for our own stress levels, we-as-parents need some hands-off time as well. That hands-off time should not only be at work or when your children are asleep.
I tried this out with Jonah and Solomon a few weekends ago. I sat at the dining room table engrossed in a book while they messed around the apartment. I told them (well, really Jonah) that I’d be responsible for keeping enough snack food on the table for the afternoon, but beyond that, they were on their own. They loved it. And so did I. Jonah did none of the activities I would have hoped – draw or paint, build with LEGOs or magnatiles – and instead, literally rolled around on the living room rug with his two-year-old brother. They hooted and howled the afternoon away, alternately tackling each other, jumping off the couch, and hiding underneath the dining room table.
Nothing productive. Pure whimsy. And for us, that afternoon, it was exactly what we needed.
I hope your kids are bored.