Recently, we took our six year old to a birthday party where the entertainment consisted of the local wildlife conservation officer. Instead of the usual high-octane high jinks, we saw the officer bring out animal after wild animal. Burmese pythons, fruit bats, skunks (I kid you not), owls, tarantulas and a young relative of the crocodile.
These were held out to view, and then those of us who felt brave enough were allowed to handle the animals. The entertainment ended with the python crawling across the bellies of eight thrilled children. Some of us adults initially had misgivings about being this close to nature at some of its most terrifying, but as the event progressed, and as the children, some as young as three, shamed us by cuddling the skunks and the tarantulas, we grew braver. We felt the python, we caressed the skunk. And we sat immersed in the show, spellbound in a way we never had during the many sport or Disney-themed parties we had been subjected to previously. We had been subjected to the "ordinary" - after all, what could be more commonplace than nature -- and we couldn't get enough of it.
Was I bored? Undoubtedly. Did I complain of being bored? I'm not sure I did. I wasn't conscious that the blame for my boredom rested with my parents.
And as for our boisterous kids, there wasn't a peep out of them.
Growing up, television was a rare treat. Computers hadn't yet infiltrated our homes. My entertainment was my responsibility. I read books, I went to the local park with friends, and on endless evening walks. But I was also alone a lot of the time. With my books or with my thoughts. Or in the pocket handkerchief-sized garden in front of my house, or behind the bamboo blinds that were lowered in the afternoon to provide some relief from Delhi's blistering summer. I'd sit there for hours, just watching the world go past. I'd mimic the vegetable seller as he pushed his cart by, and I'd keep tune with the press-wallah as he couriered his steam ironed shirts and saris across the neighbourhood. I tried to predict his movements -- would he iron and deliver to the nearest houses first, or to those furthest away? It may seem like a pointless pursuit, this ceaseless tracking, but that early fascination with measuring chance held me in good stead when I went on to study probability at university.
My friends were bored too. But we dealt with it. We read, met each other. We rested and we whiled away our time dreaming.
I watched the neighbours as they went about their day too. Parents on their way back from work or the market. Teenage girls sashaying down the street as they complained about the weather. Their complaints never ceased but they still walked every day. There were the teenage boys following a discreet distance behind, and it was perhaps for them that the girls held their daily parade under the sweltering sun.
One thing is true. Time moved slowly in those summer days. The days seemed endless. It's a contrast to my children's childhood, where all their activities seem scheduled weeks in advance. They'd widen their eyes if I told them how much time I spent doing nothing. Just watching the world go by. They'd look at me as I look at those older than me who boast about walking barefoot to school. The way you do when you catch an uncomfortable glimpse into a time before civilization.
Was I bored? Undoubtedly. Did I complain of being bored? I'm not sure I did. For one, I wasn't conscious that the blame for my boredom rested with my parents. I was bored. My friends from school and my neighbourhood were bored too. But we dealt with it. We read, met each other. We rested and we whiled away our time dreaming.
I see what they might be missing out on through over-engineered routines. Wonder at nature. The ability to imagine. That's what we should be giving them...
And we were endlessly grateful when we returned to school. Grateful and miraculously full of stories. We remembered the highlights of our summers -- the trip to the mountains, the time with our cousins -- in a way that children today would struggle to.
We rush to fill our children's lives and diaries. This is partly to accommodate our own schedules. But when I think back to the birthday party that held a roomful of children spellbound, I see what they might be missing out on through over-engineered routines. Wonder at nature. The ability to imagine. That's what we should be giving them, and it can be given for free. They just need to have some free time to be bored. There is nothing wrong with boredom, and something positively fantastic about finding your own solution to your boredom. This is what we should be giving our children -- the gift of boredom.
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